Approval has been granted for the development of a new national apprenticeship standard for the role of clinical pharmacology scientist, thanks to a cross-sector drive to address the skills gap.
Apprenticeship standards are aimed at addressing priority skills areas, and the critical shortfall of skilled clinical pharmacologists is recognized as one of those areas.
The proposal to the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA) was led by the Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance (CPSA), a group comprising the British Pharmacological Society, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine (FPM) and Health Education England (HEE).
The Alliance's employer-led 'Trailblazer' group worked with the IfA's Health and Science Route Panel (formed of industry leaders) as part of a broader initiative to deliver standards for the UK government's Life Sciences Industrial Strategy. The approval for the apprenticeship is a major step forward, and will help to address issues such as the lack of a career pathway, the lack of formal training, and a lack of understanding of the role itself.
Dr Anna Zecharia, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the British Pharmacological Society, said: "This apprenticeship will provide a very specific training track, so it is a clear pathway into a clinical pharmacology scientist career with a recognized qualification. Employers have told us that clinical pharmacology training tends to be done 'on the job' and training needs are not clearly defined. This scheme responds to those concerns directly."
The Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance says the lack of clinical pharmacology skills in the UK carries a significant threat to the provision of an effective and comprehensive clinical service in the NHS, the attractiveness of the UK as a place to conduct national and international clinical research, and the development of new medicines.
Further, the new ABPI skills report, releazed 30 January, confirms that that filling clinical pharmacology roles remains a challenge for employers.
Dr Sheuli Porkess, Deputy Chief Scientific Officer at the ABPI, said: "For a number of years, ABPI has highlighted the lack of clinical pharmacologists as a skills shortage in the UK. The Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance partnership has come together to address this problem and I am delighted to see the approval has been granted for the development of the apprenticeship standard for the role of Clinical Pharmacology Scientist. This is a tangible step towards addressing the problem and has been made possible only by working in partnership across sectors."
The scheme will also aim to raise the profile of this high-level occupation, which follows medicines through their entire lifecycle, from discovery to research, to dosage recommendations, safety, efficacy, marketing and approval.
Dr Anna Zecharia added, "Further, because of this lack of clarity, potential clinical pharmacology scientists are not aware of the many opportunities to play a leading role in clinical research and clinical trials. This apprenticeship aims to help people to move between commercial to public sector research - these types of moves are pivotal for the success of a vibrant, connected sector. Also, at a global level, we're keen to make the UK even more attractive as a research base, and improve clinical trial capacity - these clinical pharmacology skills are crucial for us to be able to do that. We hope the new apprenticeship will increase the visibility of this exciting career and attract the high-skilled candidates the UK needs to realise its ambitions in the life sciences."
The apprenticeship approval comes amid continued private and public investment in the UK's life sciences sector. The UK government's second sector deal for the life sciences, launched at the end of 2018, is described as including "more than £1.3 billion of investment" and "ensuring the UK remains in pole position in the treatments of today."
Applicants are likely to have a wide choice of potential employers, as the scheme has already been backed across the industry. One company keen to see the apprenticeship come to fruition is AstraZeneca. Senior Director, and co-Chair of the CPSA, Andrew Foxley, said:
"As an employer of clinical pharmacologists, AstraZeneca sees this apprenticeship as a key component in addressing the shortage of these highly-skilled scientists. They play a major role in ensuring that new medicines are dosed safely and their effects are properly characterized to secure health authority approvals all over the world. AstraZeneca has been keen to support this training initiative from the beginning and we are delighted to be part of working to build this vital function for the benefit of research and patients."
Leaders in pharmacological research are also welcoming the initiative. Dr. Ulrike Lorch from Richmond Pharmacology Limited said, "It's crucial that we invest in these skills in the UK, and this apprenticeship will make a significant contribution to improving patient care in the medium- to long-term future. The approval to develop this training scheme is an important step for the industry, and we certainly look forward to welcoming our first participants."
Senior figures in clinical research are also extremely supportive. Dr Richard Fitzgerald, Director of The Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust, has been working closely with the team behind the apprenticeship proposal. Dr Fitzgerald said,
"We are keen to see this apprenticeship come to life. The NHS is well placed to connect patients with research. For example, clinical research facilities like mine run studies that translate new discoveries into the healthcare that patients need. Clinical pharmacology scientists have the skills to make sure that patients taking part in these studies get the right dose of the medicine, and work to design trials that give reliable data about whether the treatment works. This apprenticeship will boost the number of people able to do this work, helping to strengthen the UK's clinical research base and ultimately helping patients get the medicines they need faster."
The British Pharmacological Society expects the first cohort of participants to consist largely of scientists who are already working in a clinical pharmacology role but are seeking official recognition and qualification, and pharmacists looking to use their skills in research. A ripple effect should follow, with fresh graduates welcoming the opportunities.