I have had three blocks of placements (over the course of the past three years) while undertaking the Bachelor of Pharmacy, and I have learnt many different things from each experience. I hope that this post helps anyone thinking about studying pharmacy to have a slight insight into the degree, and helps those already enrolled in the program to prepare for their first placement.
As a first year pharmacy student, I wasn’t quite sure why we needed to do a community placement in the first place. Since then the answers have become quite obvious. Community placement gave me an insight into the operations and running of a small business and got me familiar with the daily practices of a pharmacy. This was particularly helpful as it was segmented throughout my degree and in plenty of time for my final intern year (which all students must complete after graduation). The experience also helped me to plan my study more effectively and assisted me in making career decisions, e.g. whether to be a community or hospital pharmacist. After my very positive placement experiences in community pharmacies, I have now decided to pursue this career avenue.
How to prepare for your first placement?
When on placement, you must be aware and switched on at all times. An attendance sheet must be signed by your preceptor (supervisor) after each placement, so it is important to try to impress them with your professionalism and Pharmacy knowledge. You will be taking notes on every patient case that you observe, therefore, remember to pack a good pen (possibly a backup too), your attendance sheets, and your pharmacy student badge. For your second year you will also have to remember your graduated descriptor tools, however, you won’t need these in the first year. These tools allow your preceptor to grade your performance and enables open communication and advice between the two of you. It’s actually quite fun when you get to this stage and start to discuss your performance and things which you could improve on, with a graduated professional. Often the things that you feel like you are doing wrong, do not look the same (or as bad) for others. This feedback really helps shape and improve your placement performance.
What do you do on placement?
On your very first day on placement you will be required to observe and answer a list of questions provided by your course coordinator. These questions prompt your thoughts and help you to familiarise yourself with the business and how to deal with customer interactions. They may also teach you some of the basics including compounding medicine and using the cashier machine. Try to soak up as much experience and knowledge as possible in your four-hour shift. The time seems to fly past!
On your second placement (which is in second year, second semester) you will be required to get much more involved in the customer interactions, you may even handle some of the customer cases in regards to over-the-counter medications (either from direct-product request cases or symptom-based cases). Try to write down or remember each of your cases after your shift. These examples will be useful for your weekly reflective diary. Each year your responsibilities will grow and by year three you will be required to dispense a number of scripts and be confident with your patient interactions.
How to find a placement location?
In most cases for first-year students the placement locations will be arranged by the School of Pharmacy administration. Or - if you have a specific pharmacy in mind - you can be proactive and find your placement site yourself. If you are planning to find it yourself, I would recommend you to search for the pharmacies nearest to your house, or at least those you can reach easily through public transport. Make sure you also take into consideration the services they provide, such as compounding, dose administration aids and any specialty services. Remember to take into account the business environment in which it operates. If it’s a busy pharmacy you may get to learn more and receive more opportunities to learn.
Choose the pharmacy that fits your preferences, then approach the manager in person to politely ask about their placement opportunities. Be prepared with your resume, university timetable and preceptor introduction letter (provided by the school). This will make you look organised and professional. This preparation will give you practice for your future placements, which must be found yourself. My suggestion is to not put all your eggs in one basket by only approaching one pharmacy. Many students are looking for placements and it takes them some time to filter through the students. Visit as many pharmacies as you can and put your best foot forward (including dressing smartly) to give a good first impression and increase your chances of being chosen.
What happens if you mess up on placement?
Mistakes do happen, which is why it is important to wear your student placement badge. This allows customers to be aware that you are still studying and are not completely armed with the knowledge and skills of a qualified professional. Often this makes customers much more forgiving and considerate if you do make a mistake. If there is something you are not sure of then don’t freak out. Apologise and get help from one of the other pharmacy professionals. Make sure you listen to how they deal with the problem in order to learn from the experience and get it right next time around. Don’t be shy to speak out and ask the other staff members lots of questions on placement. You will learn much more from them than from reading a book or studying your lecture notes.
Do placements lead to paid jobs?
Many of my friends got hired by their preceptors and started to work part-time in the pharmacies whilst finishing their degree. If you are hoping for the same result then I would suggest you to try to go on placement at the big franchise pharmacies like Chemist Warehouse or Terry White Chemist. They will have greater job opportunities due to their many locations.
Finally, double-check everything before you go for your first day on placement - badge, attendance sheets, and pens The last thing you want is to look disorganised on your first day. Most importantly, enjoy the experience and learn as much as you can. The skills you learn during this time will be the backbone of your future career as a pharmacist.
Meet the author...
Hi, my name is Pei Sin. I am in my third year of the Bachelor of Pharmacy at UQ. I am originally from Malaysia and am enjoying my time studying in Australia. I am a creative person so in my downtime, outside of uni, I enjoy painting, sketching and drawing. If I can find the time amongst study I also am a big fan of crime and investigations shows like NCIS, CIS and Bones - I definitely get a kick out of it when they mention chemical/medical terms which I understand.
The University of Waterloo's innovative pharmacy co-op program is designed to give students the opportunity to learn on the job and to apply their academic skills to the real world. It differs from summer jobs in that preceptors are required to teach students in more depth and show students the roles of pharmacists in a variety of environments, including community, hospital, governmental and research sectors. It is distinct from internships because students are able to experiment and determine which practice settings they might like to enter in their future careers. As a strict requirement in Waterloo's pharmacy curriculum, the co-op program has, to some degree, helped compensate for the summer job losses students have experienced over the past few years.
It was during the pursuit of my first co-op placement that the provincial governments began to ban the professional allowances paid to pharmacies. Since our first-year class was competing with third-year students for job placements, many pharmacies opted for the more experienced students to fill the few positions they had available. Yet, because Waterloo believes it is imperative for pharmacy students to gain on-the-job experience, the university enlisted co-op advisors to help their co-op coordinator find work for all the students. These advisors worked day and night searching for potential jobs all over the country and managed to find a placement for every student by the end of the term. Waterloo's dedication to the pursuit of quality pharmacist mentoring is inspiring.
Although I had only completed my first year in pharmacy at the time, I believed I had already gained many skills and much knowledge through my work experience in the community setting these past months. To me, this experience has been at least as valuable as the lessons I've learned through my academic studies. For instance, pharmacists have taught me about different pharmacy settings and how difficult it may be to shift from one to another, depending on your experience. Both community and hospital practice have their merits and I would be happy working in either, but I wouldn't be aware of the differences if I hadn't received this information from an experienced pharmacist.
My co-op experience in community pharmacy has taught me that pharmacists must be able to stay calm under pressure and work quickly and efficiently. My first shift was on an extremely busy night. At one point, I looked at my preceptor and noticed that he was cool and collected despite all the chaos around him. He radiated an aura of calm that helped me and the technician relax; he even managed to soothe some of the frustrated patients. The technician — a former nurse with 30 years of experience — was extremely competent and had the patience to teach me even though she was busily performing multiple tasks.
Communication is another key aspect of being a pharmacist, and the co-op work experience has contributed to my understanding of its importance in everyday practice. A pharmacist needs to know what kind of information and language is suitable for patients, physicians and fellow pharmacists. In the community pharmacy setting, I have improved my ability to listen to patients, as well as gather clues from their body language and unspoken meanings. I have learned several communication tips to use when dealing with difficult patients; the most important lesson, in my opinion, being “it's not what you say; it's how you say it.” Telling the patient that you “can't” or “won't” be able to help him will arouse aggravation, whereas telling him “we'll work on this” or “I'll have it done by this other time” can help calm him, while still communicating the message.
The work program has also allowed me to hone my academic knowledge in a practice setting and experience first-hand the effects of this knowledge on patient health. One pharmacist I work with regularly assigns me side projects intended to demonstrate patient-focused care. This includes situations requiring in-depth research on the patient's behalf. On one particular occasion, one of our diabetic patients was planning a trip to a tropical destination where he would not have access to a fridge for his insulin for at least a week. After completing my research, I found that insulin stored at 37oC did not significantly differ in blood glucose–lowering performance compared to insulin stored at 5°C.1 Regardless, the temperature at which insulin is stored should be kept as low as possible and I suggested that the patient store the insulin in a lunch bag that had a reflective coating on the inside and maintain a lower temperature using instant ice packs (so that the environment for the insulin would be kept cold when he needed it to be). Not only was the patient extremely thankful on the phone, he visited the pharmacy a few days later for the sole purpose of thanking me for my work. This particular project taught me something new about insulin's shelf-life and how to serve patients on a more direct level.
In addition to the skills I am developing through the co-op program, I have been given the opportunity to work with excellent pharmacists. One of them has won the Canadian pharmacist of the year award, mainly due to his MacGyver-like ideas and fierce intellect. I have learned a lot from him and his constant medication quizzes, such as what to do in certain situations and how to deal with tough cases. Without him, I would not know that we can request that doctors give samples of rosuvastatin to patients who do not possess sufficient funds or a drug plan or how pharmacists can act as a patient advocate, assisting with arranging coverage of expensive drugs. Pharmacists like him earn patient appreciation and improve patient quality of life through their deep reservoirs of knowledge and compassion. It is because of these mentors that I am compelled to learn as much as possible for the sake of my current and future patients.
The future of pharmacy is dependent on the competence of the next generations of pharmacists. Though co-op programs are not the only means of improving the quality of practice of future pharmacists, they are a major step in the right direction, providing pharmacy students with a better understanding of the pharmacy world.
1. Vimalavathini R, Gitanjali B. Effect of temperature on the potency and pharmacological action of insulin. Indian J Med Res. 2009;130:166–9.[PubMed]