While we all understand the role of our doctors, it’s not often we give thought to the person we collect our prescription medicine from.
But pharmacists play just as big of a role in our healthcare system, though he or she often gets little or none of the credit.
“The pharmacist is the drug expert, and the last professional the patient deals with before they go home and begin treatment,” explains Colin Inniss, President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Trinidad and Tobago. “It is their job to advise and counsel you properly — what to look for, side effects, how long it takes to work, how often to take it — anything regarding your course of treatment.”
The Pharmaceutical Society
The Pharmaceutical Society has been in existence since the 1960’s, but lost momentum in the late 1980’s as many issues were being handled at Council level — i.e. the Pharmaceutical Council, the legally-recognised body of 10 officials that regulate the practice of pharmacy in Trinidad and Tobago.
However, in recent times Colin Inniss and his colleagues found that pharmacists did not really have a voice — and over the last four years they have made it their mission to reinstate and reinvigorate the Pharmaceutical Society, which consists of around 300 qualified pharmacists, pharmacy assistants, pharmacy students, and pharmacy assistant students.
The Pharmaceutical Society is seeking to become a resource centre for all pharmacy-related matters. While the Society does not have the power to ‘hire or fire’, as Colin terms it, the Society is made up of the vast body of professionals that interacts with the patients, and it is their role to lobby as a united body to ensure that members’ needs are brought forward and met at the Council level for the nation’s benefit.
Apart from liaising with the Council to raise issues, the Society plans social events for its members and also contributes significantly to continuing education among its members — for example, presentations on pain management or education sessions on a particular drug.
“Education — and re-education — is so important. We have to unite to get pharmacists to do the right thing — let’s work better together,” states Colin.
The Path to Pharmacy
For Colin, choosing Pharmacy as a career was a gradual decision.
“My aunt owned a pharmacy in St. James, and my family had invested in it,” he explains. “Things went awry — someone had stolen money, so he was fired and then we couldn’t hire anyone else at the time, and I was helping out as much as I could. Then, I decided — let me do this thing properly, and go back to school.”
Pharmacy had just begun to be offered as a degree subject at the University of the West Indies — prior to 1999, Pharmacy was a Diploma subject. Colin, who graduated in 2000, was a member of only the second graduating degree class.
He remembers a key moment early in his career, when he was an intern working at a hospital.
“A guy had a terrible skin condition, he was peeling and his hands were deeply cracked,” says Colin. “The doctor prescribed a month’s supply, and he came to collect it. He was in pain, and so depressed. We walked him through the process, what to expect, and encouraged him to give it time to work.”
A month later when the patient came to fill the prescription, Colin could barely recognise him.
“He came up to me,” Colin says. “He showed me his hands — he was doing so much better, and genuinely said thanks so much for encouraging him. Then and there, I really saw that the pharmacist can make all the difference.”
Pharmacy — what you may not know
There’s a lot to know about Pharmacy (and yes, that is the correct term!) and many that we may have never given thought to. Here’s a few Colin pointed out:
1. You don’t have to own a pharmacy to be a pharmacist.
“Pharmacy is a diverse and active field, and there are so many different roles within this field,” says Colin.
He himself does not ‘own a pharmacy’, but works for AMCO (Alston’s Marketing Company Limited) as a pharmacist performing regulatory affairs duties, ensuring that all the drugs the company sells are registered in the country and allowed to be sold.
Another pharmacy role Colin has had experience in is a specialty involving diluting concentrates to create injectables for cancer treatment drugs.
Furthermore, you can study to be a pharmacy assistant — even if you have no intention of becoming a pharmacist.
2. Pharmacology and pharmacy is not the same thing.
“All doctors — even vets — do pharmacology as part of their degree,” explains Colin. “But the study of Pharmacy is separate.”
Pharmacology is the study of the interaction of drugs with living systems, and is an essential component of the study of Pharmacy. But studying pharmacology does not make you able to practice as a pharmacist.
And rest assured, your pharmacist is not ‘apart’ from the medical world — pharmacist students study alongside medical students, and learn some of the same material regarding patient treatment.
3. Pharmacy is a qualification — and your pharmacist needs to have one.
“The strength of the pharmacist is our education,” explains Colin. “Our goal is to ensure that patients are compliant with drug use — whether or not the doctor may mention some aspects, it is the pharmacist who is the drug expert.”
Furthermore, the pharmacist is supposed to be in the pharmacy when you collect your drugs.
“There are instances when the pharmacist steps out, and has someone ‘watching the store’ and filling prescriptions,” Colin notes. “What if an error was made, an incorrect drug dispensed to someone?”
4. Just because a drug or ‘supplement’ is in a store, does not mean it is registered and safe for use.
“This is one of the biggest problems we face as a country,” Colin says. “In my job at AMCO, I take forward an entire package to the Ministry of Health — information from the producers, lab tests, certificates saying products are approved for T&T… only then is it imported and can go to pharmacies. Unfortunately, not every drug or supplement is like that.”
He points out that locally, despite the legislation of our Food and Drugs Act, unauthorised trading still occurs.
“There is much evidence that there are drugs being sold, which are not imported by the authorised distributors,” he explains. “These unauthorised importers are usually referred to as ‘suitcase traders’ but in actual fact, the ‘suitcase’ can be the size of a major shipment.”
5. And finally, one you should know — your pharmacist cannot recommend drugs requiring a prescription.
If so, you’re asking him to break the law.
The doctor’s role is to diagnose and prescribe — not the pharmacist’s. While he or she may recommend common over-the-counter drugs for minor ailments, it is illegal to prescribe medication.
“As pharmacists, we do not have someone’s medical history, so we can’t see the full picture,” says Colin. “If someone comes in with symptoms of diabetes, we can’t assume that’s what they have and give out medication for it. We are supposed to tell the person, ‘You need to go to your doctor’.”