Sandra Gidley has more than two decades of experience as a community pharmacist.
As a former Liberal Democrat MP for Romsey – a post she held between 2000 and 2010 – she is now the chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s (RPS) English Pharmacy board.
She talks to Léa Legraien about her political career, success and why the Government needs to invest more into community pharmacy.
Q What inspired you to become a pharmacist?
A I liked science and my parents wanted me to do something with a job at the end but I didn’t want to become a doctor.
My original intention was to teach and become a university lecturer. I realised at that time that all the research in pharmacy was laboratory-based, which I’m temperamentally not suited to as it drives me insane!
I did my pre-registration training in community pharmacy since I don’t like hospitals, mainly because my mother spent a lot of time there when I was young. I quite enjoyed being in the community and the contact with people so I thought I’d stay there for a while.
Q What is the key to your success?
A It’s important to be comfortable with what you do. When I’ve come across situations I was unhappy with and couldn’t change, I’ve just left and done something else.
Q What challenges have you faced along the way?
A I like being in charge and when I first went back to work as a locum in the supermarket sector in 1990, I suggested I became a pharmacy manager four days a week. My store manager was very enthusiastic and saw what I could do, but a lot of the people in that part of the company weren’t sure that this was a good thing as the department managers were full-time and it was unheard of for a woman to do it.
My other challenges have been in the political arena. Getting elected and staying elected are huge challenges.
Politics is also a very male-dominated environment. I was elected in 2000, which was three years after the beginning of the Blair Government, which dramatically increased the number of women in politics. But it was still less than 30% of women. I think there were only three other women in my party when I was first elected.
It worked ok for me but I could see that it was a problem and there were some very sexist attitudes [in politics]. You just have to face it, be tough and not allow yourself to be bullied.
Q Do you have any professional regrets?
A Probably not getting involved in pharmacy politics at an earlier stage.
Q How did you end up in politics?
A I’m easily bored and that’s partly the problem. I’ve always been one of those pharmacists who talked to people and tried not to hide behind the dispensary wall – bearing in mind that this is going back 20 years when there weren’t clinical services in the same way.
I was finding the community pharmacy role at the time a little frustrating. I didn’t feel that it stretched me intellectually and discovered local and then national politics. I was doing new things, having to apply critical thinking skills in a different way to make arguments.
That was challenging because it was a new environment. I had to learn new skills and make my case in front of a group of people and persuade them to my way of thinking.
Q How does your political experience help you in pharmacy?
A It actually works both ways. One thing pharmacists have is attention to detail. That ability really helped me when I was on the bill committee in Government scrutinising legislation.
Also, the fact that as a community pharmacist you’re used to dealing with people in all sort of situations, whether they’re sick, angry or upset. You’re also used to tailoring your messages. Those skills really helped me as an MP.
With the political skills, it’s given me a degree of low cunning because there are different ways of achieving solutions to different problems.
Quite importantly, I know when to go into rant mode and be more quiet and work behind the scenes. It’s important because you have to build up relationships and trust people to get things done. I’ve also learnt to try and see things from a range of perspectives.
Q Would you return to a career in politics?
A I wouldn’t want to go back to being an MP. I’m still involved with the Liberal Democrat party assessing candidates but it’s below the radar. At the moment in my role at the RPS, I think it’s really important that I’m not seen as party political.
I haven’t ruled out going back to local government because one of the things I really miss and enjoy is achieving things in the local community. Sometimes through local government you can make tangible improvements to people’s quality of life and that’s a very attractive idea to me.
Q What changes have you seen in pharmacy in the last 20 years?
A One of the things that really struck me when I left Parliament was the increased bureaucracy. All the pharmacies were a lot busier with much fewer staff so it was clear that they were working under pressure. That was seven years ago and I think it’s got far worse now.
What was good was that more people were asking pharmacists for advice. But the frustration comes from the Government, which still doesn’t seem to have recognised the potential of pharmacy. It talks about what pharmacy can do yet it doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.
Q How would you describe the current state of pharmacy?
A Uncertain is the best word because there are no discussions or negotiations going on as a result of the judicial review and appeal.
I look at Wales and Scotland and see pharmacy delivering much more there. The Government made a huge mistake with the cuts. If it wanted a smaller pharmacy network, it should just have talked to the sector about how to achieve it. By acting in the way it has, it’s probably going to lose the pharmacies it can least afford to and that isn’t good for patients or the profession.
I would really like to see some sort of scheme where people have to go to a pharmacy first. Then the pharmacist could refer the patient into the system, if necessary, because GP’s time is taken up with far too much stuff that actually doesn’t need to be dealt with by a GP.
Various conversations we’ve had [with the Government] led me to believe that prevention is a role that is being considered as something pharmacy can do but it has to be properly thought through.
At the moment, when we do things like medicine use reviews (MURS) and the new medicine service (NMS), I often use these opportunities to talk to patients, particularly newly diagnosed type 2 diabetics, about diet and so on. But you can’t do it all in a 10-minute MUR consultation.
If the Government is serious about prevention and the role pharmacy can play, there needs to be something properly thought through and funded.
You have to keep the roof over your family’s heads and inevitably, even if you want to do all the professional stuff in your business, if it’s not properly remunerated you’re going to concentrate instead on services that bring in a decent income.
Q What changes would you like to see?
A Pharmacies should be able to formally refer patients to GP surgeries. I would like England to take a closer look at what’s going on in Wales and Scotland with regard to their pharmacy first schemes because minor ailment schemes are being decommissioned here.
Unless some alternative is put in place to go to a GP practice, patients will continue to make [unnecessary] GP appointments. We need to be taking some of that pressure off.
The problem is that nobody seems to be thinking about how the whole system works and it’s all in silos. We really need to work through which parts of the system community pharmacy can cope with.
Q What do you think of the current pharmacy funding contract?
A It’s a cut again in real terms because everybody’s bills have gone up. Cutting the money the same this year is more a reflection on the fact that they had to do something, the negotiations having just started because of the judicial review.
In the past, we’ve divided and ruled. This has to stop if pharmacy is to realise its full potential. What’s really heartened me is that the chief executives of the big pharmacy organisations are now trying to work together much more collaboratively.
The more we present a united front to the Government and policy makers, the more successful we’ll be.
Q What does the future hold for community pharmacy?
A I think there’s huge potential but it requires people to stop talking about how much pharmacy can do to relieve pressure and start thinking more realistically about how this work can be funded and commissioned.
I’m not optimistic that we will have any sort of service-based contract. I haven’t given up but if you rattle the chicken bones, it’s not looking as great as it could be.
Q What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt in your career?
A Step out of your comfort zone. Ultimately, tell yourself all the reasons why you should do something and don’t go along with the reasons why you shouldn’t do it.
Q What are the key qualities of a good leader?
A Integrity and consistency. You have to think about the perspective of the people you’re trying to lead, not just your own views.
I have firm views but I do listen and try and work out where other people are coming from.
Q What advice would you give to women who want to be leaders?
A Don’t expect your fantastic talent to just be noticed, you have to tell people about it.
The strength and power of networking is something that I’ve completely underestimated. In the world of politics, all the decisions are being made in the pub.
Although I wasn’t at the pub all the time, I went to social events before and after meetings where you get to know your colleagues. I think those are very underestimated by women.
Q What makes you happy at work?
A When I’ve made a positive difference to somebody’s life – when they’ve done something that have changed their behaviour as a result of what I’ve told them.
Q How do you champion the profession within the RPS?
A I see my role as making sure the work that was started continues.
People who know me know that I raise the gender question and try to make sure we look representative (we have 50/50 pharmacy board in England). But there are still more male directors than females, which is frustrating because we have relatively few females putting themselves forward for some of those positions. It’s important to have a good cohort of both to choose from.
I got recently annoyed at a meeting I went to because one of the men said ‘Well, as long as a woman can do the job’. I had a little bit of a rant because I hear this being used as an excuse all the time.
I’m a great believer that there is a sort of unconscious bias because very often people appoint other people like them. We’re conscious of it and getting better at not doing it.