Why pharmacy made me turn to the SNP

On Thursday evening, I took part in a canvassing session for Julie Ford who is the Scottish National Party candidate for a by election that is due to take place in Glenrothes West and Kinglassie next month. She is charismatic, local and politically has her finger on the pulse – I am biased of course, but I genuinely think very highly of her. I am confident that she will score a very handsome victory and by this time next month will, God willing, she will be an elected councillor.

But whilst I was browsing through her website earlier this morning, something on her home page grabbed me with vigour. And it was this following paragraph in particular that struck me:

During my time at university, and for two years after, I worked in a pharmacy and became a trained dispenser. This profession opened my eyes, it made me realise that people don’t choose poverty, or a life filled with drugs – that is a sign that our society has failed them.

She couldn’t have been more right if she wanted to be. It was one of the finest pieces of writing I had ever stumbled across in a very long time, because it reminded me why I ended up becoming a member of the very same political party that Julie is representing in next month’s by election.

When I commenced my pre-registration training in Birmingham nearly four years ago, I found the idea of Scottish independence to be nothing more than a fantasy. But numerous things happened to me that challenged this thinking. For starters, I was away from home, alone, having to rely on my own self to get through a very intense year of training that lay ahead of me. I never genuinely realised that I was going to miss home as much as I did. And with that came something that God gifted me as a blessing that was to truly enhance me as an individual and brighten up my personality. 

My Scottish identity flourished like a fully grown thistle. The vast majority of people I came across, spoke and worked with admired my unique Scottish self. They appreciated the Caledonian spirit that I never got to fully appreciate myself until it became apparent to me. I was different to everyone else and I loved it. Now, generally speaking, one of my biggest anxieties in life is being boring or coming across as boring to anyone. You could call it thaasphobia if you wanted to, but let’s just say that I like to raise an eyebrow or two at the best of times! 

And during my time in the West Midlands, Scotland was adjusting to life under a majority SNP Scottish Government at Holyrood. Alex Salmond’s authority as First Minister had never been stronger, but Prime Minister David Cameron’s behaviour towards him over that prospective referendum on Scottish independence was absolutely dishonourable and a democratic disgrace. The Conservative Prime Minister who failed to even win a majority in 2010 trying to teach an SNP First Minister how to go about fulfilling a democratic mandate that had been so solidly won in 2011 with an overall majority inside a Scottish Parliament where the electoral system was designed to minimise such an occurrence from taking place? Get real Mr Cameron!

But in the context of this particular article, that is to an extent besides the point. By the time I commenced life as a pre-registration pharmacist, the Scottish Government had ended the two tier and discriminating disgrace that was prescription charges. A system which didn’t raise a meaningful amount of money for NHS Scotland, nor provided equal access for all patients in Scotland to access medicines when required. A system where if you were an asthma or COPD patient, but unfortunate enough not to fit within one of the exemption criterion at the back of a NHS prescription and on a low income, then you had to pay up. And a system which ate into the precious time of pharmacy teams up and down the country in terms of managing to get past the red tape and the time it took to double check on who was eligible for free prescriptions and who wasn’t.

Unfortunately, patients in the West Midlands and all over the rest of England could not enjoy the benefits of not having to pay prescription charges unlike patients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I had to watch on far too many an occasion patients having to agonise over which medicine they wanted to get dispensed which sadly resulted in them often not receiving all of the medicines prescribed to them on the prescription given to them. This in a sense is enough to even question the whole idea of prescription charges in the first place. And it is also dangerous as well, because omitting some of the overall treatment due to cost is the fault of the system in the first place and not the patient. If the patient is the first priority, then why on earth do prescription charges even exist in the first place? 

To be absolutely frank, I find the whole idea of prescription charges an absolutely indefensible one when a patient who is entitled to receive the full treatment that they have been prescribed can’t, because affordability becomes a serious issue due to low income. If someone is prescribed two inhalers that they must have and can only afford to pay for one, then it’s just counterproductive. There are many people in society today only getting by on the minimum wage and aren’t paid anywhere near the living wage (and not the one proposed by the Chancellor incidentally) – they hardly have any money left on the side for them to actually life their lives to the fullest. And with prescription charges currently at £8.20 per item, it eats into someone’s budget very easily. I can only wish that England’s Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, sees sense one day and abolishes this pointless levy. But I am not holding my breath frankly.

Despite all this, I have to act impartially and with obligation to the duties and responsibilities that I am expected to exercise and hold accordingly when I’m practising within the dispensary. But otherwise, you can see why as a pharmacist practising north of the border now how much I sincerely appreciate Scotland not having to impose a levy on prescription items. The SNP puts the right priorities first. I reject any suggestion of prescription charges coming back – it is a folly and futile way to raise any revenue for the health service. Those that say the richest in society should pay, fail to understand that it is the working poor that stand to lose the most if a levy on prescription items was still in force. And what’s more, taxpayers have paid for the medicine budget within NHS Scotland already. You wouldn’t pay for your weekly grocery shopping twice, would you? So why should you pay twice for your medicine if you need support from the health service?

The other thing that strikes me the most as a pharmacist is the suffering, sadness and struggle that many patients have to endure in their lives. Many of them find themselves in poverty, caused by circumstances that were outwith their control and have little chance of any way out. As someone who was fortunate enough to go to university and achieve a degree, the “walk on by” attitude is always a threat. Yet thankfully, I feel humbled enough to realise that the patients I take care of in my work are my fellow citizens. 

My experience as a pharmacist has taught me a lot more than how to measure and manage someone’s blood pressure effectively. It has shaped my politics. It has motivated me to make me a full time pragmatist – getting things done effectively to benefit others and just doing the right thing in general. It has transformed me into a progressive – supporting and championing policies which benefit all and improve equality. And, especially after coming home after my training nearly three years ago, the old me who was vulnerable to the once contagious “Scottish cringe” returned north of the border more secure, strong and proud of his Scottish identity and, ultimately, came out of the closet nearly a year ago and declared his full support for the independence of Scotland.

I have had to manage much of my own pharmacist career on my own two feet, particularly when I was a self-employed locum until late last year. I didn’t receive a lot of support and was stubborn enough to keep calm and carry on. As someone once said, independence is the most natural thing in this world and boy were they right! 

I have also been impressed by how pharmacy in Scotland has made it’s own place and distinctive identity clear within the profession, especially since the start of devolution. We have a community pharmacy contract which is proof that we are capable as a profession within our own country that we can make our own way and can also inspire others around the world when it comes to delivering healthcare. I would still like much more to be done in terms of gaining more autonomy for Scotland so that our NHS in Scotland is further protected, nurtured and less vulnerable to the regressive nature of the current UK Government. And ultimately, I want the prize of independence to be secured for Scotland so that we can take things to a whole new level and create the special and progressive society in Scotland that many of us wish for.

I have Julie to thank for the existence of this article. Without her powerful words on her website, it would have never brought about that reminder home to me as to why I ended up as a member of the Scottish National Party today. And because it matters so much, I am incredibly fortunate to find myself in a position today where I am a nominee for the party in the Mid Scotland and Fife region for the 2016 elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Yours for Scotland!

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