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How the coronavirus crisis has impacted on trainee pharmacists (called pre-reg until end of summer 2021) – part 4

In the fourth instalment of our ‘coronavirus and its impact on trainee pharmacists (called pre-reg until end of summer 2021)’ series, we talk to Samuel Opoku, a PDA trainee pharmacists Rep who after being unsuccessful in passing the pre-reg assessment in 2019, was denied the chance to retake the assessment earlier this year or become a provisionally registered pharmacist.

Thu 27th August 2020 The PDA

Here, Samuel shares his story of how the GPhC’s decision has impacted on his career thus far.

I come from a family of pharmacists; from brothers, nephews, and nieces and to top it off, I married a pharmacist. It was a natural thing to fall into the family tradition – even after achieving a degree in Biological Science and a Msc in Property Development.

I studied pharmacy at the University of Portsmouth and being the oldest in our year, I was given the affectionate nickname ‘Uncle Sam’ by peers. I was working full time (night shift) and commuting a 100-mile return trip to university every day. It was an extremely hard time, but with the help and support of my family and my peers, I was able to complete the MPharm degree. I struggled to connect the practical aspect of pharmacy practice to the theoretical aspect of the course. Mostly because I did not have any work experience in pharmacy. 

A devastating outcome…

In 2019, when I took the pre-reg assessment to become a qualified pharmacist, I was unsuccessful. I was then advised to do a one-year access to pharmacy course at Highbury College in Portsmouth. Initially, I thought this would be a waste of my time, going over something I have done before, but I found it very useful as it was a refresher course to my GSCE O-Level and A-Level that I did 10 years prior to the access course.

It has been a very frustrating year, especially after finding out that I was not eligible for provisional registration and I must wait to retake the assessment. We all found ourselves in unprecedented times during the pandemic. We found ourselves on the frontline helping the public who were very anxious, confused, demanding and in some cases, very abusive.

On top of this, the exams that we had been revising for, were cancelled. As a 2019 trainee pharmacist, this was not the news that I was expecting, but under the circumstances, I understood why it was cancelled. Then, I had to wait to find out whether I would become a provisionally registered pharmacist.

When we found out that 2020 trainee pharmacists would become provisional registered pharmacists, it was a glimmer of hope for all of us, only to later be told that 2019 trainee pharmacists that had attempted the assessment before, did not meet the registration criteria. It was devastating. It felt like we were not competent enough to take on the pharmacist role compared to those that had not sat the exam.

“The 2019 trainee pharmacist cohort spent a year longer preparing for the 2020 assessment, yet we weren’t even being considered for provisional registration.”

I feel that we have been treated very unfairly and this is very hurtful and painful. I hope someone in the decision-making team at the GPhC will rethink and reconsider us and treat us the same as other trainee pharmacists. We just have to wait for the regulator to announce the date of the assessment, and pass it, that is our only hope of ever becoming pharmacists.

Next steps…

After coming to terms with the GPhC’s decisions, the next step is to find some financial means to look after your family at all costs; luckily my wife being a pharmacist has helped a lot, but there are a lot of mature trainee pharmacists who are in a worse situation. I am currently working as a locum dispenser to help support my family. It has given me the opportunity to learn from different pharmacists, come across different prescriptions and learn how to handle different scenarios. As a dispenser you cannot spend much time on a prescription. You are supposed to dispense as quickly as you can, without asking unnecessary questions, but I will say most pharmacists have been incredibly supportive.

“I still have to find time to revise and be prepared for the assessment date to be announced at any time, but with everything up in the air, motivation is extremely low at the moment.”

I am in a WhatsApp group with other members that are also in my situation. There are about 150 of us. We try to motivate each other and share learning materials, ideas, and daily experiences.

I think there needs to be a change in the way pharmacists are trained. There should be more student placements available. I also welcome the introduction of the foundation programme. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the weaknesses in our exam-based training. Other healthcare trainees were pushed through without sitting any exams during the pandemic because their regulators trusted their training programme.

There should also be some kind of levelling between trainee pharmacist training in hospital and community pharmacy. It’s very unfair that the pass rate in hospital pharmacy is around 98% and in community is around 70%. One way of helping to even this out would be if students could have placements in different sectors throughout their training period.

In community pharmacy, I think some other healthcare workers value and understand the services we provide, but we will have to improve and expand on these services. It should not just be about dispensing medication; we should also apply our clinical skills to help patients.

Joining the PDA

I have been a member of the PDA since I was a pharmacy student. During the pandemic, I realised that it was the PDA that was on our side and was the only organisation that was actively listening to and supporting trainee pharmacists. They responded promptly to my emails where I voiced my concerns. I was able to have a phone conversation and webinars with key members of the PDA, which was really reassuring. I decided to join the PDA focus group to voice the concerns of trainee pharmacists in my situation and to contribute to any discussions around decisions that would affect the present and future trainee pharmacists.

I am looking forward to taking part in the 8-week support programme for prov-regs organised by the PDA through their new Education Hub. I am glad that trainee pharmacists in my situation can also take part in this exclusive programme, which is free to PDA members. I will advise my peers to sign up to the course.

Some experienced pharmacists just see the PDA as providing indemnity insurance. We need to make the PDA Union more accessible to pharmacists by creating a stronger voice through better links with our PDA Regional Committees and more reps in workplaces. It’s great to see the PDA building on their trade union recognition agreements too. These will provide a much-needed voice in the pharmacy profession. I’m more than happy to help the PDA because I am passionate about pharmacy and I can see how we can support the communities we serve, and pharmacists need support too.

I want to actively get involved in the changes being made to trainee pharmacist training and share my experience with other mature trainee pharmacist students. Statistics show that there is a low pass rate among mature trainee pharmacists taking the GPhC assessment. I would like to know why and see how I can help my fellow mature trainee pharmacists. It is really hard to combine studying with trying to support your family at the same time. There is a lot at stake for us, because if things do not go as plan, it’s hard to make a career change at the end because of our age. Mature trainee pharmacists need more support during the trainee pharmacist training year. My future aspiration as a pharmacist is to investigate this and provide support for mature trainee pharmacists.

Advice for future trainee pharmacists

Trainee pharmacists should start revising early and learn as much as you can from your tutor and your team. Actively engage in talking to patients regarding any OTC queries, you learn a lot that way. And for mature MPharm students, I would recommend that you find a pharmacy dispenser job to do at least one day a week. This will give you on the job experience. Learn a lot about OTC drugs, prescriptions and even control drugs before you start your trainee pharmacist year. It is particularly important.

Finally, make sure that you are a member of the PDA. It is free to join for trainee pharmacists and students, so enjoy the benefits.


By Samuel Opoku, PDA trainee pharmacist Rep

Get involved

Students and trainee pharmacists can join the PDA for free here.

If you are a trainee pharmacist and would like to get involved in a PDA focus group, please express your interest by emailing:         

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