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What's it like to be a helpline pharmacist?

Published on: 3 Sep 2009

There are never two days the same in my job as a pharmacy advisor at NHS 24 Ð I really enjoy the variety it involves. I am responsible for responding to medicine-related calls to NHS 24, Scotland's confidential telephone health advice and information service.

People phone into the service with all kinds of pharmacy-related enquiries. For example, they may have questions about what medicines to take for minor ailments, or they may be worried about having accidentally taken extra doses of their medication. I also support NHS 24 nurses with any queries they may have about medication and the suitability and availability of OTC drugs.

There are a variety of outcomes for people who phone NHS 24. I can offer them simple self-care advice or I can refer them on to a community pharmacist to receive any necessary treatment.

Community pharmacists in Scotland have various tools available to help them provide care for patients in the out-of-hours period. These include a patient group direction (PGD) that enables supplies of repeat medication when patients have run out and also the direct referral process, whereby pharmacists can phone out-of-hours GP services directly to discuss care of patients or to arrange appointments.

Or, depending on their minor ailment, I can refer the patient on to another out-of-hours service within their local health board – for example, an out-of-hours GP. It depends on the call and the assessment that is carried out.

Getting the opportunity to speak to different patients is, without a doubt, my favourite part of the job. I never know what the next call is going to bring and I especially like those enquiries that are a bit unusual and get the brain ticking over. I thrive on these and I feel a real sense of achievement in finding the right solution for the patient.

My role also involves training new nurses and call handlers about the services available from community pharmacists, as they are valuable healthcare professionals to whom NHS 24 refers many patients.

I joined NHS 24 four years ago as part of the first intake of pharmacists to the service. Working part-time during the out-of-hours period (in the evenings and weekends) fits in well with my family life as I have two young sons. It was one of the things that first attracted me to the job.

Working during the out-of-hours period does have its drawbacks and it is sometimes tough having to go out in the evening after looking after my sons all day. I do enjoy the change of scene to being at home though – the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

In any spare time that I do have – and it is difficult with two young children – I like to play the clarinet and saxophone. I play for my local church and I enjoy it because I have a life outside work and home.

I decided I wanted to become a pharmacist in my fourth year at high school. The rest of my family are teachers but I had a real interest in science and decided I wanted to do something different. I also liked the fact that there were different options available to me in this career.

Since I qualified as a pharmacist in 2001, I have worked in hospitals in London and as a community pharmacist in Aberdeen. Working at NHS 24 is completely different. The fact that you are not able to see your patients makes it more challenging. It is important to get as many details and descriptions about their symptoms because you can't see for yourself.

In the past four years the service has become busier. I think this is due to greater awareness among members of the public, but also among my health service colleagues.

I am really happy in my current role, which I also combine with a job working one day a week at a local GP surgery. I think I have achieved a good balance in my career and home life and I get a real sense of satisfaction in helping people.