'We act as a royal college, we just don’t have the title'
Six months into the role, Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) President Ash Soni talks to Stephen Robinson about how the Society could become a royal college and why pharmacists will come to be seen as the ‘glue’ holding together the NHS and social care.
You’ve been RPS President for six months. What are the most important lessons you’ve learnt so far?
I think realising the diversity in the profession and recognising the role of the different paths, the need to be collaborative and the skills of the different groups.
Being relevant to the membership is a key thing. There are lots of really good stuff coming out, but actually then translating that into a form that means something to people is a key part of what [the RPS has] to do. Otherwise what’s the point?
The third strand is: it’s not just what we do for [the members], but what they can do for us. It’s about how we can work with our membership and allow it to work with us to develop and create what we’re coming up with.
Why does the RPS want to become a royal college, how close is it to doing so and what that might this involve?
In most of what we do, we act as a royal college, and in fact we talk to lots of people and they perceive us as a royal college: we just don’t have the title.
Does the title matter? I suppose from a general point of view you could look at it and say, well, if you’re doing all the things that you need to do, if you have all the right behaviours, if people see you that way, it doesn’t matter – it’s only a name.
But we know that for the medical colleges there is no doubt that being a royal college has a certain status that is seen and has greater gravitas and weight. We should be seen as their equal, because we are: that’s the drive behind it. Everything we do is as a royal college would: we deliver [work] that is designed to promote the profession and improve the health of the population, for patients and public.
There is a process: we would have to go to the membership. Before we were to do anything — I might talk about it and say we should be a royal college — but we will go and consult with our members. They are our decision-making body in that sense. We can advise them, but it’s their decision, and always should be. We’d seek to understand their views, for or against.
Depending on where we got to, we’d have to ballot those members and then from the result, approach the Privy Council, who are responsible for granting royal college status and would make the decision.
In total, my view is that this is at least a couple of years in full process. It’s a matter of not rushing it.
In ‘Now More Than Ever’, the Nuffield Trust’s Judith Smith said pharmacy needed to show a united voice. What does the RPS plan to do with other pharmacy organisations to ensure there is a more cohesive approach to how it advocates for the profession?
Just making sure we’re talking to each other is the really important part of that. At managerial level, board level, elected representative level, at all the opportunities we can seek to make sure that we understand each other’s issues, opportunities and how as a result between us we can look for the 99% of stuff we agree on.
The problem is, as with anyone, what anybody else will do is focus on where we differ. Those areas are very small generally. We need to make sure that when we are out and about that all of us, all the organisations, are talking about the good things and things that we do agree on. That when somebody is trying to drive a wedge between us, we don’t allow that to happen. And I think that does come down to us communicating more effectively together and sharing what we’re trying to do, being more inclusive in all that we are trying to achieve.
Where will the RPS focus its advocacy work ahead of 2015 General Election?
It’s very much continuing to recognise the expertise that pharmacists bring; the ability to improve the health of the population; to recognise the key role that medicines play for a large part of the community and the need to make sure we make best use of them.
The principles around medicines optimisation, the first RPS guidelines adopted by NHS England, is a perfect example of the start of that story. We just have to continue to drive that agenda: seeing pharmacists as the experts in medicines, but also our role in the health and wellbeing agenda.
Also, [ensuring] large parts of the population that are considered well, utilise pharmacy and don’t visit their GP is an opportunity that the whole system cannot afford to lose.
Do you think there’s a risk of division in the profession over the drive towards a greater care-giving role for pharmacists?
We’re a diverse profession. We have people who are entirely scientific in what they do — they’re academic, they do nothing but science — to those who are commercially minded, running or owning a big organisation, and a whole group in-between that are practising and working day to day.
I think we’ll get some who won’t want to do it. But I think the vast majority of pharmacists do and are exasperated by their inability potentially to do as much as they could.
If you look at NHS England’s Call to Action, there was always the question whether pharmacists would want to get involved. They showed absolutely they are: the highest level of responses, engagement and public response. And that is because pharmacists themselves are keen to see their role change.
We’ll always have those who won’t. We have to think about working with the willing. We have to see the opportunity as being about how we can start to lead change. Once people see the value, others will follow.
There are lots of different opportunities. If people don’t want to [take on a more clinical role], our role is that we continue to support them. But at the same time that we continue to look to achieve improving quality. That has to be the bottom line.
How do you envisage the NHS and the role of pharmacists in ten years’ time?
I think pharmacists will become more and more important in care. Their role in supporting both wellbeing and use of medicines will continue to evolve and grow. I hope to get to a point that, when the prime minister stands up and talks about the health service, he talks about pharmacists, doctors and nurses, not just doctors and nurses.
I think that we will see a situation where a large number of pharmacists will prescribe and take much greater responsibility for careing’ for their patient and public population. They will be seen as a key part of an integrated health and social care system; that they will be, to a certain extent, the glue in the system. We do already do that — what we don’t do is get the recognition for it in the way that we should.
We’ll have access to all the information that we need. We’ll be supporting the health of large parts of the population. We’ll be seen as key players in vaccination programmes, and be more integrated into all the other types of public health care. We’ll have a large percentage who will also be prescribing. We’ll start to see, to a greater extent, the model that has grown in hospitals — the quality of relationship between pharmacists and doctors in a hospital setting — spread to the entirety of the system. And we will see pharmacists and doctors as collaborators in care.
Profile: Ashok ‘Ash’ Soni
- Occupation: Community pharmacist
- Current RPS role: President
- Previous RPS role: vice-chair of the English Pharmacy Board
- Other roles: Clinical network lead for Lambeth CCG; pharmacy and dentistry board member for Health Education South London
- Professional awards: FRPharmS, Honorary fellow of UCL School of Pharmacy
- Notable achievements: Received an OBE in 2014 for services to community pharmacy and the NHS
Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20067762
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