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How to survive and thrive in your foundation year

Trainees and qualified pharmacists share their tips, advice and experiences on how to enjoy a successful and rewarding foundation training year

Although Kina Vyas qualified over 10 years ago, she still remembers her foundation year – or as it was then known, pre-registration year – “like it was yesterday”.

“The proud feeling of starting as a trainee pharmacist with an MPharm degree under my belt made me feel powerful and ready to take on the next part of my career on my way to becoming a fully qualified pharmacist. 

“Then reality hit: how do I balance my new working life while learning, revising and preparing for my biggest assessment to date – all in one year?”

For many trainee pharmacists, the start of the foundation year can seem daunting. There are so many changes and challenges to face – there’s the leap from university to pharmacy, and the reality of dealing with prescriptions, pressures and patients. For many, this will be their first full-time job, which they will have to manage alongside studying. 

But the year also brings rewards. There is the chance to develop essential new skills to help not only with work life, but with life outside work. And there is the opportunity to put clinical knowledge into practice, and to support patients, build contacts, meet new people and make new friends.

Here, recent trainees and pharmacists share their advice and experiences on how to survive – and thrive – during the foundation year.

Choosing a foundation year placement

Before you choose a foundation year place, it is important to look into where you are going, meet your prospective tutor or educational supervisor, look at the experience of the organisation of hosting trainees and ask about the training you will receive, advises Mark Donaghy, professional development manager, Kamsons Pharmacy. “If you can speak to an existing trainee, that’s even better,” he says.

Oriel, the UK-wide postgraduate healthcare recruitment portal used by pharmacy, “can be a good way of obtaining a place, but many community pharmacies may be able to make a direct offer to a candidate”, Donaghy says.

Some pharmacist trainees may like the idea of undertaking training in a GP surgery, and it is important to ask about what this experience entails in order to fully understand what’s on offer. Mimi Lau, managing director and superintendent pharmacist for the Pickfords Pharmacy group, says its trainee programme is a split placement, with 75 per cent of the time spent in a community pharmacy and 25 per cent at a local GP surgery. 

“This gives trainees experience of what is involved in working at a GP surgery, including dealing with patient queries and sitting in on consultations,” says Lau

Making the most of your foundation year

Know what you want from your year

To make the best use of your time, from the start of your placement “be clear about what you want to get out of the year, and what your end goals are. The year is not just about getting through an exam at the end, advises Mimi Lau.

Kina Vyas is now a professional development pharmacist within the Education and Professional Development directorate at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. She advises trainees to consider creating monthly plans for the foundation year and to decide what topics and skills they want to learn in the pharmacy workplace setting, and also the areas they will need to revise. “The reason for the plan is because the year will go quickly and you don’t want to be left with a long and unfinished ‘to do’ list towards the end of the year,” she says.

Get involved

Trainees and pharmacists stress the importance of getting fully involved with pharmacy life. “Get stuck in” is the simple advice from Mimi Lau. “Don’t shy away from anything that might be new or different. Get involved, ask questions. Think about how you can apply your learning.”

“Take as many opportunities as possible,” agrees Rose Mahmood, who finished her foundation year in the summer at Kamsons Pharmacy at Preston Road, Brighton. “Whatever was asked of me I tried to give it a go and push my boundaries.” For example, when the pharmacy was delivering Covid vaccinations, she was given training to help the pharmacist on duty during clinics, “which was really good experience”. 

Get to know your team

Trainees should get to know the pharmacy team and understand what they do. “Be open and friendly – this could be your team for the next year,” says Qasim Enver.

Focus on the practical

Making the leap from academic to pharmacy life may take some adjusting to. “It can be hard for some trainees to change from being a student, with lots of online learning, to working in a busy pharmacy, having to stand up for much of the day, talk to the public and work full-time as well as study,” says Mark Donaghy.

He says it is important to have “realistic expectations” about the foundation year in that a trainee pharmacist will be expected to learn ‘on the job’ for themselves, whilst having their tutor to support them throughout.

“There is sometimes a mistaken belief that a tutor will be a full-time teacher, rather than a guide throughout the year. It is important to understand that the foundation year is a practical year and exists to prepare a trainee to become a competent newly qualified pharmacist,” he says.

Build on your clinical knowledge

Making the change from being a student to working in a pharmacy is about “converting what you’ve learned in a controlled environment and applying that knowledge into practice, building your clinical experience and patient consultation skills,” says Mimi Lau.

At first, Rose Mahmood found the over-the-counter counselling and responding to symptoms challenging, but she read up on self-limiting conditions and built up her confidence when talking to patients. To anyone struggling with OTC she advises: “You’re not on your own – people are there and willing to help”.

Qasim Enver suggests: “When you encounter a drug that you have not heard of before, look it up straight away. If that is not possible at the time, write a note and go back to it later.

“Familiarise yourself early with first- and second-line treatments for the most common conditions. Use your university knowledge as much as you can in the first few weeks.”

Babir Malik, who is foundation year lead for Weldricks Pharmacy, south Yorkshire, recommends trainees keep all learning material from university. “Get a diary or use the calendar on your phone, and input key dates such as progress reports,” he suggests.

Honing your skills

There are lots of skills that trainees can build on that will be valuable during the foundation year. Developing good communication skills is a core aspect to focus on. 

“Working on communication is important during training. You are likely to be speaking to patients with different communication barriers, as well as a range of healthcare professionals and colleagues. Take every opportunity to communicate with these people to build your skills,” says Emily Williams, a recent trainee pharmacist at Weldricks Pharmacy, who is now a relief pharmacist. 

It is also important to focus on time management skills and “begin to grasp how best to use the hours you have in a day”, says Kina Vyas. “Remember, often pharmacists don’t have appointments with patients unlike the majority of other healthcare professionals, so time management will be key in terms of workplace tasks and revising, all the while being sure not to compromise patient care or your own needs in terms of your wellbeing.”

The foundation year is also a chance to “embrace acquiring some business and leadership skills”, says Mimi Lau. As pharmacists work with people all the time, she says understanding, for example, how to manage conflict and motivate a team is crucial.

Help and support

“Always ask for help if you need it,” stresses Qasim Enver. “Sometimes it can be easy to forget that you are still a trainee and are there to learn as much as you can in the space of one year – because in a year’s time you will be doing all this yourself.”

Supervisor-trainee relationship

“The relationship between supervisor and trainee is key to a successful year,” says Mark Donaghy. “To make it work, you both need to set aside some time each week to give each other open feedback on how the week has been going. A good educational supervisor will ask for feedback on their own tutoring as much as giving feedback to their trainee.” 

Before accepting a placement, ask who is there to turn to if the relationship breaks down. “It doesn’t happen often, but it can affect the whole training year if it does,” says Donaghy. “At Kamsons, our training manager acts as the counsellor between trainee and tutor when the relationship falters.”

Minimise isolation

Another useful person to link with is a newly qualified pharmacist who can act as a mentor, particularly if they were also tutored by your educational supervisor. “Having both a mentor to talk to and peer support from other trainees within your organisation is really useful,” says Mark Donaghy. 

Accessing and using the Royal Pharmaceutical Society mentoring platform is free for foundation trainee members to connect with a mentor of their choice.  

“If you have any concerns, make sure you speak up soon enough to your supervisor or the charity Pharmacist Support if needed. It is always better to nip issues in the bud early on rather than let them affect your output or overall training year,” advises Kina Vyas.  

It is also helpful to build up a network of pharmacy contacts to broaden your experience, says Mimi Lau. Trainees in the community can take advantage of having placements at a pharmacy group, where there are a variety of settings and pharmacies with different specialist interests, she advises.

Challenges and how to overcome them

Managing working life

Having worked hard for four years for your Master’s degree, working life, with its different responsibilities, may be a struggle at first. “It can take a few months to adjust to a routine – this is completely normal,” says Qasim Enver.  

He recommends taking time off to see friends. “The year can be intense so always balance your work, study and social life.” 

Trainee support system

If you are with other trainees in your placement, “be each other’s support system throughout the year”, says Tanya Marie Escayo, vice president, British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association (BPSA), who completed her year as a trainee pharmacist at St George’s Hospital, London, and at a GP practice. 

“Help each other with revision and interview practice but don’t worry if you are the only trainee at your placement; there will be study days within your organisation/region where you will have the opportunity to meet other trainees and learn from one another,” she says. 

The BPSA also runs webinars about the foundation year and hosts revision sessions in the run-up to the registration assessment.

Dealing with bad days

Pharmacy can be a pressurised environment and there may be days when patients are challenging, medications are out of stock, or the work environment is just generally draining. During these times “stay as calm as possible”, says Rose Mahmood. If necessary, ask for help or hand over to those senior to you, she advises.

Get the basics right

The foundation training year is “mission difficult, but not mission impossible”, says Babir Malik. “Self-belief is so important. You are not a student anymore but a trainee healthcare professional – so you need to ensure you get the basics right, such as responding to emails and meeting deadlines.”

Emily Williams adds that there are lots of people online who will charge for revision material and online webinars. However, she points out that “there are enough free online resources to succeed in the foundation training year without having to spend lots of money”. 

Embrace the experience

The foundation training year is where an individual will “evolve the most as they step into becoming a registered healthcare professional in their own right”, Kina Vyas concludes. 

“So, enjoy the year, embrace the change and the challenges, and act on the learnings. Remember you’ve got this far. The last bit is simply putting into practice all of your hard work over the course of the foundation year and while preparing for the GPhC registration assessment. You’ve mastered your skills and built up a wealth of pharmacy and health knowledge over the years. There is just this last lap to go,” she says.

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