Whether they are working in the pharmaceutical industry or practising in a hospital or in the community, pharmacists are key players in shaping the future of healthcare in the UK. First and foremost, pharmacists have greater expertise in medicines than any other health professional and are involved with medicines at every stage of their development and use.
Tony Moffat, Chief Scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain (RPSGB) says pharmacists are increasingly involved in cutting- edge medical research. "Gene therapy is on the horizon and pharmacists will play an active role in developing new drug delivery systems to get genes into a patient's genome, as well as advising clinicians on the best medicines to use."
Soon, Moffat says, the drugs we take will be tailored to suit each individual. "We all have a different genetic make up so our bodies handle drugs in different ways. Pharmacists will take this genetic information to choose the right dosage of the right drug for each person." Moffat says pharmacists are also involved in trying to combat the growing resistance to antibiotics. "One method is to sneak drugs into cells to make new anti-viral agents. And we can tame viruses to control infection by attacking bacteria."
One of the most exciting areas of research is the development of nano- medicines - the creation of structures 100 nanometres (one nanometre is a billionth of a metre) in size or smaller - which scientists predict will soon be applied to disease diagnosis and treatment. Professor Mike Eaton of Celltech R & D Group plc, one of the keynote speakers at the British Pharmaceutical Conference in Manchester this month, says there has been an exponential growth in this field in recent years. "Nano-medicines are very specific in their mode of action and can target key biological aspects of diseases with very low side effects. This is very exciting area for pharmacists because we are using science and technologies never before used in pharmacy."
Professor Eaton says that although nano-medicines will not be on the market until around 2015, pharmacists are needed to develop them now. "This is an internationally competitive area in which the UK should be investing more. We need more training as very few people have the skills required to work in nano-medicines. There are huge challenges for pharmaceutical scientists in formulating them."
In the past, the career path for pharmacists working in pharmaceutical companies led to management. Now new career pathways are opening up. Vanessa Thorpe, senior principle scientist in pharmaceutical sciences at Pfizer's European Research and Development Headquarters in Sandwich, Kent, says: "Being an industry pharmacist means I get to work with the latest technologies, processes and methods involved in bringing a new medicine to life. The best bit of the job is knowing that I am contributing to research into new cures for life-threatening illnesses and the ultimate reward is that you are helping patients. The difference is that as an industry pharmacist you are doing it at the beginning of the process instead of at the end."
In hospitals pharmacists are also moving centre stage. Robots are already being used to dispense medicines and this is freeing up pharmacists to engage with patients on the wards. Hospital pharmacists are already specialising in conditions such as diabetes or heart failure.
David Pruce, director of practice and quality improvement at the RPSGB, says hospital pharmacists are becoming members of the decision-making team across a whole range of specialisms. "Future pharmacists will do less repetitive technical tasks such as dispensing, getting much more involved with the patient and other health care professionals."
He explains: "When a patient is admitted to hospital the pharmacist will take their medication history, and will …