The public seem to confuse chemist with pharmacist, so how does a pharmacist feel about this?

The Public attitudes to chemistry survey revealed that many people confuse chemists with pharmacists. Mark Peplow comments on what the survey means for chemists - but here Kit Chapman, of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, give us the pharmacist’s view of this mismatch.

pharmacist with drug package

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I’m used to people confusing me for someone else. Say the word ‘pharmacist’, and you’re bound to get a host of alternatives. ‘Chemist’ is the most common, but it doesn’t end there. ‘Drug dealer’ is just as popular. Once, at university, someone asked what I was studying. “Pharmacy,” I said. “Oh,” he replied, “so you’re training to be a farmer?”

It seems to be a bigger issue than I thought, too. The recent Public attitudes to chemistry study from the Royal Society of Chemistry found that the five words the general public associate with ‘chemist’ are pharmacies, medicines, prescriptions, drugs and shops.

It’s not that surprising. Boots, by far the largest pharmacy chain in the UK (and part of the largest pharmacy company in the world) was called, for most of its history, Boots the Chemist. The real question is whether or not this misconception harms either profession.

At first, it seems the difference is largely semantic; the public know the difference, even if they don’t use the right words. Nobody visits a pharmacist to brush up on their organic chemistry (which is probably a good thing, I can’t remember my amine from my amide), and I doubt many people pester their chemist friends about the latest cocktail of pills they’ve been prescribed. It’s the word that seems to be an issue, not its understanding.

When 84% of people agree that chemists make a valuable contribution to society, who are they talking about?

The problem is that this lazy terminology holds both professions back. Chemists are scientists who work in a broad spectrum of fields and industries, far more than I can name off the top of my head. Yet because of the close association with the high street pharmacy, this wider world is hidden from view. And it’s almost impossible to pick out from the RSC report how real chemists are viewed by the public: when 84% of people agree that chemists make a valuable contribution to society, who are they talking about?

On the flip side, ‘chemist’ doesn’t help pharmacists out that much, either. The classic image associated with the word – a white coated, middle-aged man hidden out the back of a shop playing around with potions and pills – has largely vanished. Today’s pharmacist has more in common with a GP: they are trained, expert clinicians who are focused on patient care and advice. They work on the high street, in hospitals, in GP surgeries and in strategic roles throughout the NHS. The pharmacy profession has broken free from the dispensary, and the word ‘chemist’ is driving them back.

The other problem for pharmacists is also hidden in the RSC responses: the association with the word ‘chemist shop’. The fastest way to annoy a pharmacist (I wouldn’t recommend it) is to call them a shopkeeper. To a pharmacist, it devalues everything they try to do, in the same way that dismissing chemistry as nothing more than covalent bonds and odd-smelling reactions devalues science. In short, the chemist shop has to go.

The solution to this misconception, if there is one, will take time and work from both professions. It will require more chemists and pharmacists in the media, talking about their own roles and using the right terms. It’ll need the general public to stop using a lazy shorthand and start recognising the expertise of both professions. And it will need people to start putting a premium on science: not simply its results, but the processes and hard graft that lead to them.

Perhaps it’s just a word. But ‘chemist’ is a core part of your professional identity. It’s time you claimed it back.

Chris Chapman is Senior Editor - Learning at PJ Publications, Royal Pharmaceutical Society.