Walking through London’s Hyde Park recently I felt unusually optimistic for the future of our profession.
The evening was still pleasantly warm from a sweltering day, and I had been fortunate to listen to the erudite Professor Harry McQuillan, chief executive of Community Pharmacy Scotland, share his vision for the future of Community Pharmacy in the 21st Century NHS at the annual UCL/RPS/NPA lecture.
I began to consider just how we might realise the opportunities, but could not overcome thoughts of the worrying state of our professional leadership. As a profession, we have many good leaders, each able to create a vision and to enthuse members of their tribe or fiefdom — but where is the overarching leadership? Where is the vision, passion and ability strong enough to unite and support us all?
Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s say it as it is. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society is not in a good place. Mired in controversies of its own making and the subject of scrutiny through the Chief Pharmaceutical Officers’ commission into professional leadership, its future looks precarious. I sincerely wish it were not so and that events had happened as envisaged. But we must face reality.
Wherever I turn I find people increasingly questioning the Society’s relevance, and as depressing as it is to hear this I reluctantly have to agree. Members are clearly disengaging – and I empathise with them. If it were not for my personal investment in the RPS I too would be leaving. Indeed, unless there is a significant recovery in its fortunes within the next few years, I may well be. Maybe as a retired pharmacist the Society is less interested, but many retired pharmacists are long-standing supporters of its work and are senior members of the profession. They are marginalised at considerable risk.
We have a professional leadership body seemingly frightened of its own shadow. Its apparent lack of self-belief and its opaqueness has led it to self-harm and to subsequently acknowledge its mistakes and make endless promises that its various reviews will lead us all to a brighter future. Meanwhile its voice, credibility, influence and attractiveness continue to diminish.
We hear a member of its Assembly unbelievably propose that the RPS disengages from the current vital work on defining the future requirements for professional leadership, and an RPS director publicly commenting on the unacceptability of external structures being imposed upon it, when they are not.
We see pharmacist membership plummeting to an all-time low, representing around 30 per cent of GPhC registrants; less than half of the level seen at the time of its establishment in 2010.
Recent national board election voting turnouts are the lowest on record, and reports of poor staff morale and increasing turnover rates are concerning. All these are worrying signs. It is right for us to question what is going on.
Yet it need not be this way. I believe it is not too late to regain what has been lost and for a completely repositioned and reinvigorated Society to play a pivotal role in the landscape of professional leadership. It will require a fresh start, a significant shift in strategy, and a step change in culture, ambition and management.
Ultimately, what the profession needs is strong professional leadership, and it will be for the soon-to-be-established transitionary Pharmacy Leadership Council to take a view on what form this should take. It would be a completely futile exercise for the RPS to tinker with its Royal Charter and objectives, its legal status and governance arrangements, and to rebrand itself (again) in the misguided belief that this is all that is required.
The RPS has moved too far from its core membership to have any chance of recovery as “the” professional leadership body for pharmacists. It has too much unwelcome baggage and if it looks, feels and behaves like the current organisation it should not expect its fortunes to change.
Instead, the RPS should seriously consider the bold step of dissolution, and the incorporation of its membership body assets and resources into a new truly collaborative enterprise, working with other leadership bodies and specialist professional groups, in a royal college and faculty relationship, which will provide the leadership required for the profession to take advantage of the many opportunities coming down the tracks.
This may well be a rather contentious suggestion, but any attempt to pursue an isolationist strategy would, in my view, be divisive and terminal.