Former president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) Ash Soni talks to Costanza Pearce about his plans for the future and what makes community pharmacy an exciting place to be

Q You're going to have more time now you’ve stepped down as RPS president. What especially are you looking forward to in the coming months?

A Over the last few years particularly, a lot of what I've been doing is strategy and thinking about what [the profession] should be doing, rather than actually making it happen. What I really want to do is get my hands dirty. That's why being a council member at the National Association of Primary Care (NAPC) is particularly exciting for me.

I've been quite heavily involved in working on primary care homes. As an exemplar primary care network (PCN), the primary care home model can showcase how multidisciplinary teams can work in practice.

Q Can you tell me a bit more about Stepcare as well?

A Stepcare is a project we're doing in India. I'm working with some GPs, a dentist and some others to build two primary care centres from scratch, based on a population of about 50,000 each.

We're embedding all the clinical practice within the one site in what we call the Roundhouse model. You have a group of clinicians who work around the patient, so the patient stays put and the clinicians go to them. It's very much about making patients the centre of what you do.

It’s built on digitalisation because this supports people to have the confidence to have greater control over their health and we've got plans to develop some quite novel exemplar services. In a way what we're trying to do is say, this is our vision for healthcare here in the UK. The system here has made it difficult to do but [in India] we've got a clean slate.

Q What would you most like to see in the future for community pharmacy here in the UK?

A The role of pharmacy and the pharmacist being seen as part of that extended care family.

I’d also like to see how we can utilise our estates better. We talk about pharmacists in GP practices, but why can't we have a GP in the pharmacy? Most pharmacies are already open for extended hours. Rather than having to open a GP practice, put in staff and lighting and everything else, my pharmacy is already open, I've got the room – if I'm supported well, why couldn't a GP be in my pharmacy? I could triage the patient to them when it’s appropriate.

Q Looking backwards, how did you see pharmacy change over your presidency?

A The biggest change in that period of time has been the development of GP pharmacists. It's effectively a new category for pharmacy. Similarly, the development we’ve seen recently of care home pharmacists.

In community pharmacy, the biggest pressure point has been the funding cuts without any doubt. But what we've started to see is people recognising the value community pharmacy can bring and realising that they need to use us more effectively. With the digital minor illness referral service (DMIRS) and now the next phase of GP referrals to DMIRS, we’re seeing pharmacy as a key component of urgent and emergency care in a way that probably hasn't been seen historically.

We tend to be very focused on the consequences of the cuts. What we've not seen is what a great career community pharmacy still is and the opportunities it presents.

Q What can contractors do to advocate that community pharmacy is an exciting and attractive place to be?

A It's quite difficult. The grass is always greener. Whatever job you do, there's always fun stuff but a lot of it is day-to-day hum drum. That's reality.

Part of it is being able to articulate better what we do. In community pharmacy, I don't know what the next person who walk in the door is going to want from me. The variation. The day-to-day challenges that you face. The type of questions you get that you will not get in any other environment.

Even if you sit in the GP surgery, you'll get people who are coming to see you because they are not well. In a community pharmacy, you have the one opportunity to see people that are apparently well and have a conversation with them about the things that may be affecting them in the future.

Q You seem quite positive about the sector at the moment. Do you think it's in a good place?

A I think it's challenged, but all of healthcare is challenged. If you have the same conversation with GPs, they’re finding it really difficult, they don't know how they're going to cope, they only get six minutes with a patient and they don't have time to focus well on care. The same things exist across health.

It is tough. I've got my own pharmacy so I’m going through the same thing. I feel that pain but if you don't start to think about what we might be able to do in the future, you walk away.

Our challenge is seeing how we can create the environment for people to feel there is a future – and a very bright future - in pharmacy. I do believe it is bright, but we have to step into that space. We need people to advocate more.