Moving from the NHS to industry gave Tom Skelland the opportunity to do more of what he loves – but first and foremost, he remains a pharmacist. By Jennifer Trueland

If Tom Skelland has one priority, it’s making sure that clinicians have a voice in digital transformation. As senior pharmacy executive at Oracle Health, he drives major electronic patient record deployments across NHS trusts, but he never forgets his own experience as a hospital pharmacist on “the other side”.

“It’s so important to involve the clinicians in the decision-making when it comes to deploying an EPR,” says Skelland. “It’s making sure these people are at the table, making sure they’ve got a voice. At the end of the day, it’s the clinicians who will use this, to make sure the patient gets the most out of it, to make sure the patient is safe. And being a clinician myself provides reassurance. It gives someone a companion, if you like – someone who can walk them through it, and who understands what they are going through.”

Skelland didn’t have a childhood ambition to be a pharmacist. His first degree was in chemistry, followed by a master’s in drug design. But then he decided to go back to study pharmacy – and loved it. “I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, but I came out with a career in front of me that I was really looking forward to.”

Knowing that he wanted to work in hospital pharmacy, Skelland initially thought he’d like to specialise in HIV, but instead he “fell into” paediatrics at St George’s Hospital in London. After five years, he moved to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he pioneered the then new role of medicines administration pharmacist.

The value of digital

Although he loved the job, it was while doing this that the value of digital was really brought home to him. General paediatrics, where he had worked before, was “live” with then Cerner’s Millennium (now Oracle Health) system, but the neonatal ICU had yet to switch from paper. Having experienced the benefits of the digital solution – not least in terms of patient safety – it felt a backward step to return to a paper system. That’s partly why he was delighted to be asked if he would get involved with the deployment of the new system in NICU.

“I’d done that pioneering role in NICU for the last two years and so felt I was correctly placed to talk to people and make sure that the things that were translated into the system were safe,” he explains. “People were nervous about the implementation. They knew paper – they knew how to do that. So, it wasn’t just implementation of the system, it was encouraging them to use it wisely and competently. They trusted me because they knew I could do it in real life – it wasn’t just me coming in and telling them what to do. I was experienced on their side, but also had the experience on the ‘other’ side, so they trusted what I said.”

After that deployment was completed, he moved to a full-time post as pharmacy team leader for clinical informatics and ePMA where he led a team responsible for making electronic prescribing and medicines administration as simple and efficient as possible across the whole trust.

Having discovered a love of managing projects and deployments, it was perhaps a logical step for Skelland to take on his current role with Cerner, now Oracle. “An opportunity came up, and I thought I can do the job that I really enjoy but on a larger scale, for other trusts.”

Supporting the clinical voice

As a senior pharmacy executive, Skelland supports clinical staff at trusts that have decided to implement the full EPR or separate sections of it as part of their digital transformation. “I’m making sure that clinical voice is heard, which is the most important thing, and supporting those clinical staff, be that doctor, nurse, pharmacist etc. They do worry, understandably. It’s brand new for them, and they’re considering patient safety all the time. So, there’s a lot of guidance and reassurance that I can provide using my experience. I can say ‘I’ve done that, and it went really well’. Or ‘I’ve done that, and this is what I’d do differently this time.’ Having the insights and the experience really helps.”

It’s extremely important, he says, that clinicians he is supporting understand that he has a clinical background. “I will always introduce myself as a pharmacist – I am still a pharmacist. I think that brings reassurance. That’s what I’m there for, and that’s what I hope the clinicians that are working in trusts would feel that I bring. It’s experience, it’s knowledge – it’s someone who’s been through it on both sides.”

Driving improvements in care

Although he has been working at Oracle a relatively short time – he began in September 2021 – he has already been able to achieve success with the type of project he really enjoys. “I’ve worked with two trusts to bring them from paper to the full EPR across the full sites – I really helped to drive and deliver that in the first 18 months.

“But my other favourite thing is that I work with a network of pharmacists and pharmacy teams across all the trusts who have an Oracle Health solution. We’ll deal daily with questions from people via email, but we also have a special interest group, which I run with another colleague, and we meet quarterly with all those representatives from trusts.”

These meetings are a huge source of knowledge and peer support, he adds. “I get a real sense of joy because it’s real learning, and it’s client to client learning. People relish the opportunity to share and to learn. It’s really fantastic.”

Continuing to drive improvements in patient care is his priority for 2024 – and Skelland is clear that getting medicines management right is key to that. “The thing about medicines and medications is that it touches everything. It’s something that I realised when I was working in the trust, that a change somewhere else will probably have an impact on medicines. It’s not just pharmacy – it’s making sure that pharmacy information is in the right place to be seen by the right people. It’s so important for patient safety to make sure that medicines information gets relayed to the right people and correctly. That’s the critical thing for me and that’s why I enjoy making sure it goes well.”

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