With more than 40 years of experience in pharmacy, Cathy Cooke has worked in multiple settings – going from head of medicines management at Allied Healthcare to head of pharmacy in Bristol prison.

Now pharmacy manager for Care UK’s Emerson Green and Devizes NHS treatment centres, she talks to Léa Legraien about her experience, success and challenges.


Q Why did you become a pharmacist?

A When I was a child, I wanted to be a vet, thinking about that type of careers in medicine. My father had a grocery store and one of his good friends had a pharmacy two doors down. I did some work for him in the school holidays and thought I’d quite like to be a pharmacist.


Q What’s the key to your success?

A Being adaptable and practical and taking advantage of situations as they occur. I’ve done a number of different roles, which gave me quite a lot of additional experience.

I also happened to be in the right place at the right time. You just go for it but need good communication skills and be able to hand over information.

It’s important to have a good range of skills because people value what you do.


Q How did you successfully jump from one role to another?

A It was difficult on occasions, partly because I’d been in community pharmacy for around 25 years.

I wanted to do something different and it’s a bit of a leap in the dark sometimes but you’ve got to go for it. Moving sector in the old days wasn’t something that was often done. You had to convince people you could do it and had transferable skills rather than just having all the knowledge you needed, which is unlikely. It’s easier now and even encouraged to move around and use your skills.

I think it’s about having confidence in yourself and going forward because you don’t know until you go for it.


Q What challenges have you faced along the way?

A I’ve always thought, ‘I’m a pharmacist it doesn’t matter whether I’m a man or a woman’. I’m optimistic and couldn’t see it would make a difference. I’ve never considered it that way but there were occasions when I came across embedded cultures.

What’s being seen now is a lot of men in senior roles. I would think about it retrospectively. I might have thought, ‘Didn’t I get that because I wasn’t right for the role or because a man got it?’.

If you go for something in a different field, it’s like being dropped in in a deep end. It’s about having the confidence to not know everything.

I’d never worked in secondary care before. I’ve got quite a lot of years of experience in different types of settings – community, trust and prison. There was a lot of what I didn’t know coming in and it can be quite daunting. I’m quite outgoing and sociable and would engage with colleagues I don’t know so it’s about having realistic expectations and not being frightened to get people on your side to support you.


Q What are you the most proud of in your career?

A I suppose supporting people, mentoring other pharmacists and being able to do something.

For example, when somebody was coming back in the pharmacy saying ‘Thank you very much’, I would get the evidence I was making a difference. Those little moments are quite nice.


Q What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learnt? 

A Being professional and honest about what you know and don’t know because people will trust you if you’re honest.


Q What are the key qualities of a leader?

 A You need to listen, look and understand what’s going on. Also showing people you’re with them and having the enthusiasm because you’ll take them with you if you’re enthusiastic.


Q What advice would you give to women who want to be leaders?

A Have confidence in your abilities. That’s the thing men have, often being comfortable in themselves and promoting themselves quite well.

As for women, we tend to think, ‘I’m average, everybody is like me’. But it’s about going for things you think you can do. You can practise it, build the skills up to present yourself and be confident in yourself by talking to people, for example.


Q How would you describe the current state of pharmacy?

A Community pharmacy is worrying. Pharmacies are providing a lot of support to people who can easily get medicines and healthcare advice. If they go, where are they going to get this? It’s a worry for what the outcome is going to be for pharmacists, their pharmacy and business.

The Government is keener on having localised solutions but with that you don’t get consistency and couldn’t add it to the contract so I think national professional elements are necessary.


Q What does the future of pharmacy hold?

A There are loads of exciting opportunities. The profession needs to grasp these and deliver. We need to be visible and heard otherwise people don’t know what we do.

It’s the key that other health professionals, as well as the public, know what we do and can deliver. We need to promote ourselves. It’s quite an exciting time – you can learn and do what you want if you’re confident.


Q What healthcare improvements need to be made in prison?

A I worked in Bristol prison in 2004, as head of pharmacy, when Bristol Primary Care Trust was still taking responsibility for healthcare in prison.

The actual healthcare provision, particularly pharmacy, was pretty good in that prison. There’s been quite a lot of work done since then at implementing healthcare standards and bringing them up to the equivalent NHS standards in other settings.

There have been quite a lot of movements and improvements from when I started, even if there are still some challenges in some areas.

There are a lot of needs that required a lot of input in prison. The standards are there but it’s about how providers can meet them with the available budget.


Q Do you think the NHS will survive another 70 years? 

A Who knows?! Despite all these talks about privatisation, it doesn’t seem to be the Government’s drive.

Things are changing so fast now that to say it will be the same in 70 years time is unrealistic.


Interested in delving deeper into some of the challenges affecting women in pharmacy? Join us free for a dedicated networking forum at Pharmacy Forward on 10 June