Armed forces take pharmacists

Published: 23 Oct 2009

It is April 2005. My first year exams are looming and nerves are setting in. However, these nerves are not just over exams, but what to do after I graduate. What are the options open to me?

Sally Mullen is a third-year pharmacy student at Cardiff University and an army pharmacy cadet with the rank of second lieutenant

Pharmacists and pharmacy students who would like more information about opportunities in the regular army can contact

Captain Ali Kelly, RAMC
RAMC Recruiting, HQ AMS Slim Road, Camberley, Surrey GU15 4NP
tel: 01276 412744
fax: 01276 412731
e-mail ramc.recruiting@army.mod.uk.net

It is April 2005. My first year exams are looming and nerves are setting in. However, these nerves are not just over exams, but what to do after I graduate. What are the options open to me?
Industry? I have always thought that it might be a bit too cut-throat for me, so that is one option down.
Community? Although I had enjoyed working in a local pharmacy, I did not really want to make a career out of it — two down.
Hospital? A work experience placement had left me unexcited at the prospect — three down.
Where do I go from here? I thoroughly enjoy my degree at Cardiff and want to register as a pharmacist when I graduate.

That was the thought process going through my head a year ago. Now I am Second Lieutenant Mullen (on probation) (pharmacy cadet) with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Why the armed forces, and in particular, the army? As a former air cadet I had some knowledge of what the armed forces could offer. Medical officers, doctors, surgeons, nurses and vets are all required within the services, so what about pharmacists?

Due to restructuring recently within the Ministry of Defence, medical services have become tri-service; that is to say, the army, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy share resources. The RAF does not recruit pharmacists, but the army does. Not only does it recruit, but it also offers pharmacy cadetships, a new scheme that conveniently started in April 2005.

A cadetship with the Royal Army Medical Corps is designed to give financial assistance to students in their final three years of a medicine or pharmacy degree, in return for six years’ service after registration. Tuition fees are paid and the cadet becomes a commissioned officer, receiving a starting salary of £13,000 per annum — not bad for a student. Annual placements to hospitals with MoD affiliation (Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit) can be easily arranged, so that pharmacy school requirements are fulfilled. These placements could be with the Royal Navy, Air Force or army, so that cadets get a great variety of working experiences all over the country with the services and the NHS.

I decided to do some military training while at university so I joined the Wales University Officer Training Corps. This provides anyone studying in Wales with the opportunity to learn more about military life and take part in adventure training, weekend exercises, drill nights and a two-week camp. I have made countless friends while with the officer training corps and am thoroughly looking forward to another year training with them. This year we have been sailing, scuba-diving, climbing, mountaineering, parachuting, skiing and kite surfing. We have an active social calendar and the subsidised bar is always welcome! I would recommend that anyone looking at the army as a career join an officer training corps at their university, so they can see if it really is for them.

So what is the job of an army pharmacist? Primarily, it differs little from civilian life, apart from dispensing from Birmingham to Basra or on board HMS Bulwark in the Indian Ocean. However, it all starts with training. This lasts three months and takes place in a variety of locations to ensure the specialist skills pharmacists require in the army are taught most effectively.

The training takes place at a few different locations, initially at Keogh barracks, Hampshire. Army medical services officers (doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, dentists, vets and pharmacists) spend a week learning how to maintain their uniform and how to do drill. The next phase is four weeks at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. This teaches professionally qualified officers (PQOs), such as doctors, chaplains, pharmacists and lawyers, the skills that are essential for an officer in the army. Weapons training, lectures, leadership, field craft and, of course, physical training form the basis of the four-week programme at RMAS. The PQOs course differs from the course for non-professional officers. It only lasts four weeks, rather than a year. After this phase, the army medical services officers return to Keogh barracks to apply the knowledge learnt at Sandhurst to the provision of medical services. This stage has a more tri-service slant on it, since the RAF and Royal Navy use pharmacists as well. Further specialised training then takes place so that pharmacists can be ready for their first posting.

So, after a four-year degree, one-year of preregistration training and three months’ military training, where are you going to go and what will your job be? The job can range from practising pharmacy in a military hospital to being posted to a field hospital in a war zone.

The initial posting after Sandhurst is usually at a Ministry of Defence hospital unit. These are hospital units attached to a local NHS hospital. Here the job is similar to that of a civilian pharmacist — except we get to wear a stylish khaki uniform.

After this postings can vary. I visited a pharmacist who worked with the Royal Logistics Corps. He was responsible for ensuring the correct shipments of medical supplies (from scalpels and operating tables, to plasters and gauze) reached the correct place in perfect working order. Field hospitals are amazing places. Within a week a patch of ground can be turned into a fully functioning hospital with a reception, wards, an accident and emergency department and an operating theatre. The pharmacist working with the RLC has a vital role in ensuring this hospital is not just a fantasy!

Other pharmacists have been based in Cyprus, the Balkans and the Falkland Islands. These work with troops and the local community in a way similar to an NHS pharmacist but they are also responsible for ordering all of the medical supplies for the hospital.

The services are always on active deployment. This means that troops can be deployed anywhere in the world. We, as members of the RAMC, will follow. We are involved in setting up field hospitals, maintaining their supplies and working as pharmacists while there. The field hospitals also treat the local populace, not just our troops, and can play a vital role in humanitarian aid, one that is not always possible for the Red Cross and other charities to fulfil, as demonstrated in the Pakistan Earthquake relief effort.

The work in a war is not normally front-line, but we could be called out to a dressing station (a medical post nearer the front-line) to deal with supplies and casualties there. Pharmacists are trained in advanced resuscitation so we can be involved in sophisticated techniques such as inserting chest drains.

To prepare for deployment, each unit takes part in regular military exercises. These situations are designed to test the skills of every individual involved and the co-operation between those people. The scenarios can range from a helicopter crash, to the resupply of a forward unit. These exercises are vital for personnel to learn how to work together and maximise efficiency.

But life for the AMS officer, whether he or she is a doctor, dentist or pharmacist, is not all work and no play. Adventurous training such as sailing, climbing, skiing and parachuting, as well as expeditions all over the world (such as Mount Everest 2006), are all encouraged. The opportunities are endless, and many members of the armed forces represented Great Britain at both the summer and winter Olympics.

Being an army pharmacist will, I am sure, be an incredibly rewarding experience. Yes, it will be hard work, but no more so than any other career and just as satisfying. The opportunities available are second to none both during and after university, so it is important to make the most of them. I cannot wait to get my career started and do something I know will benefit others and give me some experiences I will never forget.

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