More needs to be done to keep pharmacy’s power balance in check, says The Pharmacist’s editor-in-chief Beth Kennedy

You'll almost certainly have picked up on the story that there are proposals to introduce an apprenticeship-led route into the pharmacy profession, allowing prospective pharmacists to do their training on the job rather than at university.

This has, quite understandably, been met with heavy criticism from the sector. The Pharmacists' Defence Association (PDA) urged pharmacists to reject the plans, which were only consulted on for a measly 10 days, while other detractors slammed the plans as a 'fast-track' option.

Although those concerns are totally justified, for me, the biggest worries are a) where the proposals originated and b) why they were thought up in the first place.

To even consult on introducing pharmacist apprentices, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IATE), the body overseeing the plans, had to first be approached by what is known as a trailblazer group - an employer-led team of 'major' pharmacy organisations in support of the plans.

Tracking down which companies are in the trailblazer group has been difficult (this in itself is worrying, but more on that later), but The Pharmacist has managed to find out that Boots, LloydsPharmacy and Well are among those involved. Although the IATE has alluded to a smaller (unnamed) pharmacy company and some higher education institutes (also unnamed), the proposals having the backing of the three largest pharmacy chains in the UK is, for me, significant.

That the structure of the entire profession could change at the behest of a few large organisations is deeply concerning. Pharmacists are right to be angry that the qualification they studied for over five years could be undermined by people being allowed to train on the job for what is a complex and highly skilled role.

While the proposals are in and of themselves problematic, what is more concerning is the lack of information on them. As the PDA have pointed out, there are still a number of unanswered questions, such as how long the plans have been in development and which other organisations are involved. And of the companies in the trailblazer group we contacted, only Well could shed any light on why the plans had been brought forward.

Well’s clinical and professional learning and development manager Jessica Hall told The Pharmacist: ‘There has been a decline in university applications in recent years, and with apprenticeships having been successful in other professions, we believe it’s important to research and examine this potential route.’

But wait a minute. Only a few years ago, wasn't it common consensus in the sector that uncapped pharmacy school places had led to a surplus of pharmacists, driving down wages and devaluing the profession? I'm sceptical that so much has changed in just a few years that it is necessary to introduce an apprenticeship scheme that could very well disrupt the entire sector.

So what are the real motivations here? It's unclear at present, and will continue to be so until those involved choose to divulge more information. But rest assured that we at The Pharmacist are on the case, and will continue to keep you up to speed as and when we know more.

It's important to point out that the proposals are still at their very early stages. Let's hope that they are stopped in their tracks when it becomes clear to all just how big a mistake it would be to make them into a reality.