Victoria Ruszala

Interview

Forcing doors open: My career as a specialist pharmacist in diabetes

What made you realise that you wanted to become a pharmacist?

I actually wanted to be a vet, but my biology teacher suggested pharmacy as a back-up. My local pharmacist helped me to get work experience in a hospital pharmacy. This changed my perspective – so much so that I turned down a place at vet school to study pharmacy.

How did you get where you are today?

I knew from my pre-registration year at King’s in London that I wanted to work in big hospitals with lots of cutting-edge ideas. I moved from there to University Hospital Southampton NHS Trust, a place which really cultivated my drive to try different things. They supported me to create the very first diabetes post at that Trust – one which is now a consultant diabetes role. I then moved to Bristol for personal reasons and took up a teacher practitioner role. This wasn’t something I had ever previously considered, but it really expanded my experiences and skills beyond the ‘clinical’. 

Is your career path a typical one? 

Yes and no. I’ve stayed in the hospital sector and have followed the usual Band 6, Band 7, Band 8 pathway. But to become a specialist in diabetes has been very tricky as the roles didn’t exist at the time, so I had to force doors open. I’ve had a ‘portfolio’ career and have had to proactively seek opportunities to maintain my specialist knowledge. I have undertaken a lot of voluntary roles with organisations like UKCPA, NICE and NHS England which have allowed me to build a brilliant network and have ensured that I can always work in a specialist setting. So when a specialist post presented itself I was ready to jump in – I had the portfolio to prove I knew what I was doing.

What challenges have you faced so far in your career and how did you overcome them?

My biggest challenge has always been finding a place to fit. Diabetes is done so well by doctors and nurses that proving pharmacists can also add value can be difficult. However, I have confidence that I can add value and that has seen me through a lot – it’s hard to argue with someone who believes they are right! But the reality is that I spend a lot of time in new situations assessing where I might add value and considering aspects that I can contribute to without others feeling I’m pushing them out or taking over their role. I’ve often found that pharmacists excel in a quality improvement or governance role, where they can bring the rest of the multidisciplinary team together to achieve improvement in care. 

What key elements of your career do you think prepared you for your current post? 

Interestingly, I think the difficulties in finding a place to fit has made it much easier to work in a role that has never existed before. Taking on quality improvement roles opened so many doors and the NHSE Diabetes Transformation funding has allowed many innovative projects to be initiated. By taking on wide and varied roles I have developed competence in a broad range of areas, and I can see how doing that has formed me into a well-rounded practitioner who can draw on different perspectives and work with others who don’t perhaps share my point of view. I’m now a secondary care practitioner working in a primary care setting – very different in every way!

What consistent thread runs through your career? 

A belief that pharmacists can do better. In my early roles I was looking at how I personally could do better, but in later roles I was thinking beyond that. In my teaching role I looked at how we could deliver an already excellent diploma in a more innovative way to keep it current and applicable to practice. In my specialist roles I look from a patient’s perspective – what needs to change to empower and engage people in their own healthcare. All the way through it has been about change, and not assuming that the way it has always been done is the only way that it can be done.

You’re a member of UKCPA, how has that helped your professional development?

When I look back, I realise that UKCPA has been part of every career opportunity I have had. I joined when I was just starting out as a Band 6 pharmacist and used the forums to share practice. I first joined the Diabetes & Endocrinology Group committee when I got my Band 7 specialist post and wanted to start taking on new roles. I asked about joining after I had attended a UKCPA masterclass and was welcomed with open arms. I am currently co-Chair of the committee, which works as a fantastic team, and I love sharing the role with Sallianne Kavanagh who keeps track of us all brilliantly. 

Without UKCPA I just wouldn’t have the career I have today.

Being part of UKCPA has allowed me to build a network with people who can support and mentor me in my chosen speciality. My work with NICE and NHSE came about because they contacted UKCPA asking for a pharmacist to help, and the recognition of being part of a national association gives me a platform to stand on when I’m the only pharmacist in the room. Without UKCPA I just wouldn’t have the career I have today. 

Who or what inspires you, professionally or personally? 

I never want to tell him this (!) but Phil Newland-Jones. The way he has broken every boundary that has stood in his way is something that keeps me inspired. We are good friends and work closely on almost every project. He is usually one step ahead of me in terms of career, so the friendly competition keeps us both driving forward! 

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges facing the profession today?

Working as a whole. We are finding our own profession more and more segregated (community vs GP pharmacists vs secondary care) and rather than figuring out how we fit together and can support each other it seems that everyone wants to draw boundary lines and work out who should be promoted as the latest ‘best thing’. It’s tiresome, and until we recognise that we all share similar skills and are stronger together then we will never be fully recognised as the clinical, knowledgeable professionals we are. 

Tell us something people don’t know about you. 

I have three-year-old twin boys. They are feral and dealing with their tantrums has meant that nothing I deal with at work is as hard! Politics in the NHS has nothing on an inconsolable three-year old where logic doesn’t apply – my negotiating skills have improved ten-fold in the last few years!

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