• Ezra Ng

Rethinking the Profession Behind the Counter - an Interview with a Pharmacist

What first comes to your mind when mentioning the term ‘pharmacy’? Have you ever wondered what exactly the work of a pharmacist is? To some, the profession may seem to be familiar yet distant to you. You know they’re there, but you do not know what they do. However, pharmacy is in fact a well-established and well-respected profession throughout the world.


In a nutshell, a pharmacist is responsible for ensuring that patients know how to take their medicine safely. They prepare and ensure that the medicine is in the correct dose, and provide them to patients with the prescription of a doctor. They explain the method of medicine intake, the side-effects it brings and possible interactions with other drugs to patients.


Dr. Connie Woo is a researcher and assistant professor of Pharmacology and Pharmacy in the University of Hong Kong. Having received qualifications and pharmacist training from numerous universities overseas, she is now a registered pharmacist in Canada and in Hong Kong, and has done important research work in areas such as the gut microbiota and the functions of toll-like receptors.


MEDICINE IN HONG KONG VS. OVERSEAS


As a medical professional that has studied for many years in both Hong Kong and overseas countries, Dr. Woo knows much about the current development of medicine in both regions, including the differences in the medical system, the research process, and the development and recognition of pharmacy based on her own experiences.


As an international financial hub, Hong Kong has its own advantages in medicine --- the use and access of drugs from all parts of the world, which is unrivalled across the globe as stricter regulations and policies are imposed. However, the medical system of Hong Kong lags behind those of other developed nations, as medical professionals are less specialized. Doctors, for example, are not specifically trained for the treatment of drugs best suited for patients, yet they are to play the role as pharmacist, together with other tasks such as researching and administration. Despite Hong Kong having a similar level of medical knowledge when compared with other countries, the medical system causes these professionals to be unable to focus on their areas of expertise, and a therapeutic solution for a patient is less efficient. On the other hand, most developed countries conduct dispensing separation, where doctors and pharmacists are separately regulated, with physicians diagnosing the patient’s disease and prescribing the medicine and the pharmacist providing the prescribed drug. This allows professionals to focus solely on their work, leading to a more effective treatment and a faster recovery of the patient.


Another downside of medicine in Hong Kong is the relative underdevelopment of the industry of pharmacy. While other countries have an established pharmaceutical profession, traditional beliefs stressing the importance of doctors and physicians really dims the true contributions of pharmacy to the medical field. Doctors are already scarce in Hong Kong, yet the number of pharmacists are pitifully tiny. Moreover, prescription drugs in Hong Kong are often found illegally sold in stores without patients providing a valid prescription For medicine to truly shine in the city, it is best for authorities to learn from the rest of the world and adapt better systems for the development and specialization of different areas of medicine, and to promote and provide different medical services to the public, for example drug counselling, for the purpose of enriching the knowledge of the public towards medicine.


In terms of medical research, there are few differences between HK and overseas regions, yet the scope in Hong Kong is limited, with CUHK and HKU being the only main medical research centres. Moreover, although there are less collaborative opportunities in the city than overseas, equipment-wise, hardware for research in Hong Kong is sufficient. The city even contains some sophisticated instruments that are the only ones in the Asian continent. When conducting research, seeking ethical approval often involves a lot of administrative work, which may be a slight hindrance to the work of medical professionals. According to Dr. Woo, Hong Kong has a rather simplified administrative process, and universities in Hong Kong, such as HKU, helps with these procedures, thus relieving a lot of tedious work for researchers that plan on conducting research. Despite the fact that the grant money offered to researchers in overseas countries seems to exceed that provided by Hong Kong significantly, a large portion of the money offered goes into the pockets of universities through the lending of instruments, the venue, and hiring of assistants. However, most money provided in Hong Kong goes into the fees for the research itself --- the outcome is the same and the difference is little.


TECHNOLOGY AND THE RECENT DEVELOPMENT OF PHARMACY


Recent technological advancements have significantly altered practices and the development in pharmacy. The development of AI has also aroused heated debates on the extent to which they will be able to replace pharmacists. Currently, robotic machines are installed in hospitals. This saves the time and effort of pharmacists, allowing them to concentrate on work that requires the presence and the expertise of a medical professional, such as interacting with patients and provide counselling services to patients regarding the use of medicine. These are unlikely to be replaced by robots and AI, according to Dr. Woo, as patients seem to be relieved by the company of real human beings rather than lifeless robots, which eventually accelerates their rate of recovery.


With regards to the recent developments and breakthroughs of the pharmaceutical profession, Dr. Woo also mentioned that some recent drugs invented had to be withdrawn or to only be used in extremely urgent cases. She explained that this may bedue to the specialization of the study in different body systems by medical professionals. While such a drug may cure a problem in one system, it creates other unpredictable problems when it enters another; the reaction of the drug in the human body as a whole is out of the knowledge of the researchers inventing the drugs. Hence, instead of inventing new drugs, medical professionals are currently looking back in time to find new uses for existing, safe drugs, with the help of big data and AI to treat new diseases, by scanning for patients with multiple complications, and to discover better combinations of these drugs to cure specific diseases effectively.


MEDICINE-RELATED TRENDS AND ISSUES IN HK


As residents of a prosperous and highly developed international city, citizens of Hong Kong are lucky to have easy access to medicine and to make use of chemicals to aid our daily work, such as bleach for the laundry and shampoo for our bathing. However, in the interview with Dr. Woo, she revealed that there are currently some worrying trends regarding the use of medicine in the city, one of them being the abusive use of antibiotics. They lead to the emergence of ‘superbugs’, where some bacteria adapts to the human environment and mutates to develop resistance to these antibiotics. Killing them thus requires extra effort and the human body has to pay a heavy toll for that. Another problem is the overuse of antiseptic products, for example shampoo. We overexpose our body towards these chemicals. While its purpose is to destroy bacteria present on our skin, it allows these bacteria to develop resistance to such chemicals. Regular soap, on the other hand, has the ability to break down the cell wall of such bacteria, is a better alternative.


ADVICE ON STUDYING OVERSEAS


Woo completed her final year of high school and pursued her career as a pharmacist overseas. As a graduate from numerous institutes in the US and Canada, she admitted that there are many limitations for Hong Kong students to gain experience for further studying overseas, mainly due to few opportunities provided by institutes in HK in the scientific field. There are often too many concerns for high-school students to participate in research in universities, unlike other countries around the world, where students can freely participate in all sorts of lab research. Contrary to common belief, Woo said that the application requirements for universities in the US are relatively basic, unlike HK institutes where there is a basic requirement for your DSE performance, depending on the choice of subjects by applicants. All you need is a good CV and participation in all kinds of related ECAs, which will be taken into consideration when students aspire to be admitted to universities abroad.

There were a number of concerns from the public regarding the difficulty of the licensing examination of doctors held by the Medical Council, as they were perceived to be ‘too tough’ to non-locals and may potentially deter foreign-trained doctors from participating in the medical profession in HK. When being asked whether this was the case in pharmacy licensing as well, Woo replied that the examinations were not too difficult --- at least to her, and the questions focused on relatively basic medical knowledge.


Woo believes that one is not ‘born to be something’. She developed her passion towards pharmacy and research only when she explored further into the profession. In the interview, I’ve learnt that passion is developed from the interest, and interest from exploration and the experience we obtain when we venture out. However, when considering the pursuit of an actual career, she believes that passion is not the only factor to be considered. Personality plays an equal part in it, as it is impossible for one to fully enjoy the work you do in your entire career --- passion alone is not enough. Whether you are interested in pursuing a career related to the medical field or not, we as students should take the initiative to explore and develop the unlimited possibilities of oneself, to develop our interest, gain valuable experiences, and plan for our future career.


Dr. Woo gave us a new perspective towards the profession of pharmacy. She provided us with great insights about the current development of pharmacy in Hong Kong, and taught us the qualities we should possess in order to pursue our desired career. We hope you, our dear reader, would learn something after going through such a long journey with us, and be motivated to plan ahead for your future from this moment onwards.



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