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Published on 26 July 2007

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Communication – the name of the game

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Pharmacists, whether they be community, hospital, clinical or managerial need communication skills.

I still remember, as if it were yesterday, when fresh out of pharmacy school I started to work in a community pharmacy in London as a postgraduate pre-registration apprentice. My final step towards becoming a fully-fledged pharmacist.

On my very first day at work, I was presented with a prescription for spasmalgin suppositories. As I handed them over to the patient she said to me: “And what am I supposed to do with this?”, and I had no idea what to say. Quickly running back into the dispensary, I asked the pharmacist for his sage advice. Better not to repeat what he said! Somewhat hesitant and a little embarrassed, I gave the patient the best explanation I could manage.

Pharmacy education has come a long way since then with students receiving, quite correctly, courses on communication as a matter of right. I personally had to wait until, as a mature student, I read for a Masters degree in clinical pharmacy at the University of Manchester. The new moon has waxed and waned many times since those rainy days and I have served my time in various pharmacy jobs including 12 years of handling cytotoxics in the largest hospital in the Middle East. Nowadays I work for the Ministry of Health, heavily involved in supervision and legislation, and best of all, in telling others what to do!

As a senior government official I often get invited to all sorts of exotic places, some of them highly secret. Recently I was privileged to visit the Dolphins’ School of Communication where senior “dolphins” teach their juniors the art of underwater communication. The exact location of this school, and much of what I saw, is of course highly secret but I am allowed to share with you one of the key sentences that I heard. The subject under discussion was human beings and whether or not they have the gift of intelligent conversation. Senior dolphin said: “Although humans make sounds with their mouths and occasionally look at each other, there is no solid evidence that they actually communicate among themselves.”

This lesson was brought home to me some years earlier whilst working as a hospital pharmacist. A patient had been receiving chemotherapy, on and off for nearly five years. She had serious problems comprehending her treatment plan and appreciating the exact state of her health. Her family were extremely unsupportive and she spent much of the time in the hospital alone. She asked me if I would be kind enough to accompany her when she went to visit the senior consultant in order to help her clarify certain issues. After the consultation, at the debriefing, she asked me why the doctor responded in a certain way to a question she asked about a certain issue. Surprised, I answered: “But you never asked such a question and the doctor didn’t say those words.”

So I learnt that communication revolves around one basic issue



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