Pharmacist academic Maree Simpson

What does a pharmacist actually do?

Pharmacists are key healthcare workers in every community. From regional, rural and remote towns to the big cities, pharmacists are an integral part of primary healthcare. They are medicines experts who dispense prescription medications for acute illness and for chronic conditions such as asthma, arthritis and heart conditions.

They are also many people’s first port of call for minor health issues with the average Australian visiting a pharmacy 14 times a year. The sorts of health issues pharmacists assist with ranges from head to toe, and they provide information and guidance about them. Pharmacists also compound treatments (create a medication suited to an individual) for certain conditions for infants, children and adults. Your pharmacist can assist you to manage your health by recommending treatment programs for everything from quitting smoking to identifying your triggers for hay fever or providing vaccinations.

Day-to-day tasks a community pharmacist performs

To get the true lowdown on what a pharmacist actually does, we spoke to Dr Maree Donna Simpson, Associate Professor in Pharmacy Practice at Charles Sturt.

“Your pharmacist essentially works with your GP and other health professionals to help you manage your health.

“Pharmacists are well educated healthcare professionals who study for four years at university to attain a Bachelor of Pharmacy and then undertaking a supervised intern training in a pharmacy. After that, they regularly undertake professional development, so that their knowledge is always up to date. That’s important, as medicines are constantly changing – new treatments being invented, new combinations of medicines being trialled. Pharmacists stay at the leading edge of the field, because that’s how they ensure patient wellbeing and the best results.

“Dispensing scripts from medical practices, a pharmacist reviews the treatment, your health conditions and other medications (including those you can buy in a supermarket or health food store) to confirm that it’s suitable for you. They provide advice about the best way to store and to take/apply your medication and remind you if you have any repeat supplies prescribed by your doctor.

“Behind the scenes, a pharmacist is also responsible for immaculate record-keeping around dispensing as well as concerning stocks of medications, serums and vaccines to ensure they remain in date and their storage and supply meets legal requirements.”

Working at the heart of a community

For Dr Simpson, working as a pharmacist is all about people.

“If you enjoy working with people, talking with people and helping them, you’ll find that providing information is a central and most enjoyable part of this role. Patients often have questions around the way a treatment works, its potential side effects or how it may interact with other products such as herbs or vitamins they are taking.

“A pharmacist has a significant bank of knowledge to provide the answers. It’s no stretch to say that when it comes to knowledge about medications, a pharmacist is very much a walking encyclopaedia!”

“That knowledge is also important when advising patients on over-the-counter medications or devices. Not all patients come to a pharmacist from their doctor. For minor ailments, they will seek advice from a pharmacist, so you’ll be giving guidance and info to people who may visit you quite regularly — especially if they’re seniors or have young children.

“The same goes for longer-term treatment plans. Which smoking cessation product would best suit a particular person? How might lifestyle affect the efficacy of certain cholesterol treatments? How can we help manage blood pressure by monitoring it at home with a blood pressure monitor?

“Often you become a trusted adviser and an ‘adopted’ member of people’s family. That’s when you feel so proud to make a difference in a person’s life.”

What soft skills do pharmacists need?

Pharmacists need an array of technical skills to perform their role well. However, it’s not just these ‘hard’ skills that make a good pharmacist. Add some key soft skills into the mix, and you have a pharmacist who really makes a difference in people’s lives.

So, which soft skills do pharmacists need? Well, here are three that are definitely valuable:

  1. Interpersonal skills
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Attention to detail

Dr Simpson breaks down how these soft skills come into play when you work as a pharmacist.

“Most pharmacists work in patient-focused workplaces. You’ll interact with people a lot. So being able to communicate well with them, to deliver information and answer questions they may have is essential. On top of that, your customers may be distressed, confused perhaps, or tentative.

“Being attuned to people’s emotions and reacting to them appropriately – as well as marshalling your own emotions, whatever you are presented with – is also a must-have. And given that dispensing the correct medication in the right amounts will directly affect someone’s quality of life, attention to detail goes without saying.”

Where do pharmacists work?

Lots of pharmacists work in community pharmacies. These businesses are typically a central hub for healthcare in a town or neighbourhood. As a pharmacist, you will no doubt become familiar with many of the local residents, and play a key role in their ongoing care. If you have the travel bug, some pharmacists work as locums, moving around the country to fill in for absent pharmacists as required. This allows you to experience life and work in many different communities.

Pharmacists also work in:

  • hospitals, preparing drugs for use in hospital procedures and for post-operative care plans.
  • medicines supply and management in prisons
  • primary care organisations
  • the defence forces.

With a degree in pharmacy in your pocket, you could also choose to move into research and drug development, whether for government or private industry.

What qualifications do pharmacists need?

To become a pharmacist in Australia, you must complete a tertiary degree, such as a bachelor’s, in pharmacy.

Successfully complete your bachelor’s, and you then go on to complete an intern year and training alongside a registered pharmacist. After that, and a successful review by the Pharmacy Board of Australia, you can register with them, enabling you to work in any state or territory. This can be very useful if you want to travel while you work.

Do you want to do what a pharmacist does?

So there you have it. A pharmacist works at the heart of their community and helps people live their best life. Sound like your kind of career? Let’s get started.