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What is the difference between a doctor and a pharmacist?

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Occasionally, one of my customers will forget that I am wearing a name tag and revert to a more generic title. They often call me ‘doctor’. It’s a bit of a weird one. Technically, some pharmacists are doctors in the sense that they might have a Doctor of Pharmacy (that’s me by the way). But the term can be a bit misleading because most people use the word doctor to refer to someone who practices medicine. While someone with a doctorate in Ancient Egyptian culture is a doctor, if they responded to an urgent call of ‘is there a doctor in the house?’ this technicality might not be so appreciated. But I digress…

A pharmacist and a doctor do different roles in the 21st century, though this was not always the case. For most of history, the two roles were intrinsically linked. As far back as the medieval period, the apothecary would diagnose the malady, and then go away and construct the relevant antidote. By the time the 20th century rolled around, medical science had progressed so far that it was simply impossible for one person to be skilled in both the diagnosing of illness, and the chemical engineering required to construct medicines and so regulation split the roles. You would get medical advice at the doctor’s surgery, and medicines at the pharmacy. In hospitals, you will find pharmacists working together with doctors like any other specialty.

But there are differences. Firstly, there is a pretty large gap when it comes to income. Most pharmacists don’t sweat over this though. To work in pharmacy is a calling. Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. The second big difference is the amount of training required. In Australia, you can finish a degree in four years, and complete an internship on the ground to qualify as a registered pharmacist. For medicine, you can complete the necessary training in seven years to become a registered practitioner.

Despite these differences, there are many similarities between the two professions.

  1. Contribution to research

The reason life expectancy continues to rise in developed nations is largely due to medical advancements. People don’t die from preventable diseases as regularly, and we are better equipped to maintain a quality of life as people move into their 80s and 90s. Doctors and pharmacists have both contributed to medical advancements through their contribution to research. The advent of penicillin, ibuprofen and paracetamol are all wonderful examples of pharmaceutical breakthroughs that have saved millions (if not billions) of lives around the planet.

  1. Commitment to patient wellbeing

In Australia, doctors don’t take the Hippocratic oath like they do in America – we tend to opt for a modified a modified Declaration of Geneva written by the World Health Organisation. But the intent is the same. Both doctors and pharmacists are committed to the health and wellbeing of their patients. For pharmacists, this might involve steering them towards the right pain relief medication, providing the sort of insight that a supermarket cashier does not have. One of my favourite parts of being a pharmacist is the time we can spend with customers. Unlike a doctor who has strict a booking schedule, we can spend a great deal of one on one time if a customer is in need of help. And the fact that we don’t charge for this expertise means that people often come our way more regularly than they might for their doctor. It truly is a job for people who love people.

  1. Medical knowledge

There is a lot of crossover between the training of a pharmacist and that of a doctor. Both develop skills in chemistry, physiology and anatomy. Interestingly, pharmacists specialise like doctors, anything from ambulatory care, cardiology, compound sterile preparations, critical care, geriatric, infectious disease, nuclear pharmacy, nutrition support, oncology, pharmacotherapy, psychiatric pharmacy, and solid organ transplantation Doctors then to go on to specialise into a specific field of medicine, with a strong emphasis on diagnosing and treating different illnesses. Pharmacists focus on what to do once the illness has been diagnosed; what drugs might be needed in what quantities. In any ways, the two professions are two sides of the one coin. Neither could function properly without the expertise of the other.

A common misconception is that a pharmacist is a glorified shopkeeper. This could not be closer to the truth. Pharmacy involves much that cannot be seen on the street level. Behind the curtain, we are carefully mixing different ingredients to create the medicines that keep you well. Even the slightest miscalculation or misunderstanding of chemical reactions could cause serious illness. That is why we spend years in training to make sure we get things just right. As well as the shopfront mixing, pharmacists are necessary in the research and development of medicines and vaccines in laboratories. I can say – with great pride – that the various vaccinations against COVID-19 would not have been possible without pharmaceutical experts. In terms of the vaccine rollout, Australia would not be able to boast the highest vaccination rates in the world without the hard work of local pharmacists who put themselves on the front line to make a healthier safer community.

Yours in health,

Floyd

Senior pharmacist

A little addendum: There is much discussion happening in Australia right now about the role of the pharmacist in providing healthcare. Many pharmacists argue that they have the expertise to be able to provide medicines without a prescription from a doctor. Have you ever had the situation where you knew exactly what medicine you needed (perhaps you’ve had it before for the same condition) but you can’t get it without a doctor’s note? Under this new proposal, you could save a trip to the doctor, saving both you and the healthcare system time and money. Of course, this is an issue which requires careful thought and examination, but if done thoughtfully, it could end up being a truly useful development. There is precedent. When pharmacists fought for the right to administer vaccinations, they were accused of taking patients away from GPs. Years later, it seems perfectly reasonable. Only time will tell how this issue resolves itself…