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Home  »   Latest News   »   What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

Una O'Farrell, Regional Officer for Northern Ireland, The Pharmacists' Defence Association, considers the significance of titles in the pharmacy and wider healthcare corners - and how they can help build the basis for professional boundaries and camaraderie alike.

Wed 24th August 2022 The PDA

I recall clearly my very first day as an Undergraduate at Queen’s University Belfast, and not solely because Tyrone had just won their first All-Ireland football title the previous day. The then Head of School was an altogether suave man. Capturing the audience’s attention wasn’t a difficult task, given the collective eagerness in the room, and he did so effortlessly. How he started or ended his address to us, I don’t recall, but I remember clearly that during it he posed the question, ‘How is it that doctors are addressed as Dr, as are dentists, and nurses are oftentimes given their title, but pharmacists have no title of which to speak?’

It stuck with me over the years. Recurred in my thoughts. I thought, with all the vehemence of youth: We should not be seeking a title, surely? They should be wanting to shed theirs! We should be trying to be as relatable as possible, remove anything that even looked remotely like an obstacle to free and open communication with patients. Why, this is but SNOBBERY! I stopped thinking this a while back, and I’ll tell you why. I watched Boris Johnson be interviewed by a lady ostensibly named ‘Sarah.’ Hard-hitting and tenacious in her interviewing style, she continually addressed him as ‘Prime Minister.’ He on the other hand, consistently referred to her as ‘Sarah.’ It became quite obvious what he was trying to do. With his head leaning to one side, and a more playful demeanor, he tried to soften her, and make the conversation an altogether more banterous exchange, one within his comfort zone. Meanwhile her continued use of his title ‘Prime Minister’ served the purpose of reinforcing the professional boundary. Tradition tells us that a woman adopts her husband’s name after marriage. History tells us that this is to signify ownership. Reality tells us that couples enjoy a sense of mutual belonging by sharing a name, like a membership of a very personal exclusive group.

Pre-registration pharmacists are now to be known as trainees. Both descriptions remain accurate, but I’m sure there is rationale for this switch somewhere in making their status clearer to patients. At the recent Northern Ireland Healthcare Conference in Belfast, the President of the PSNI pointed out that his organisation is often confused with the ‘other PSNI.’ A chat with a student also got me to thinking about the names of our various professional bodies. Where he sat, he couldn’t be expected to know his UCAs from his NPAs – it was overwhelming. And explaining to him that CPNI stood for Community Pharmacy Northern Ireland, but no, he couldn’t join, because it wasn’t actually for community pharmacists, convoluted things further. It all shows the need for names to ideally be descriptive, recognised and understood. When I attend the mix of weddings, christenings, Bar Mitzvahs and indulge the delightful small talk question, ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m a pharmacist,’ it’s often met with ‘Ah you’re a chemist!’. I generally smile and nod, familiarly recognising their definition of ‘chemist’ equating to my definition of ‘pharmacist,’ but I do wistfully eject from my mind the image of me holding a test tube shouting ‘Eureka!’ Language is important. It should be used to be understood and clarify rather than convolute and confused.

So, coming back to the suave Head of the School of Pharmacy’s point back in 2003, perhaps we do need professional titles. Maybe like ‘Sarah’ and the Prime Minister, a title would serve as a necessary reminder – to patients and ourselves – that we are in a professional relationship. To reframe the boundaries where they have become blurred between vocation and job. This is arguably most needed now when we have become so accustomed to serving patient needs, often to our personal detriment and inevitable burnout. Maybe like a married couple, it would unite pharmacists working in all sectors – promote camaraderie, that sense of belonging that we’re on the same team regardless of where we choose to practise. What our title might be – if not using the trisyllabic ‘Pharmacist X’ – is another conundrum. All I suggest is not a confusing acronym, vaguely suggestive of a past or looming identity crisis. And then again, maybe we don’t need them at all.

This article first appeared in the July 2022 edition of NI healthcare Review 


By Una O’Farrell, PDA Regional Officer for Northern Ireland 

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