Talent across borders: opening doors for refugee pharmacists in the UK

The idea of rebuilding your life from scratch, far away from the people, culture, and places you know and love, would be challenging for many people. Yet, for the growing number of individuals forced to flee conflict, natural disasters, and persecution, this is the reality of life as a refugee.

According to data from the United Nations Refugee Agency, the number of displaced people crossed the staggering milestone of 100 million in 2022. Among them are trained medical professionals who have much to offer healthcare services, if given the opportunity.

However, returning to practice can be a long and complicated process for refugee health professionals. Each health service has a specific way of working, and without education, employment opportunities, and support, even highly skilled individuals can struggle to navigate an unfamiliar healthcare landscape.

As part of efforts to help support displaced people on their journey to employment in the UK, on 11th August, IQVIA, in collaboration with RefuAid – a non-profit organisation that supports refugees and asylum seekers across the UK to access higher education and employment – invited 12 refugee pharmacists from across the country to attend the company’s first employability event.

“We’ve always worked with organisations to support both healthcare opportunities and to really look at what we can do to aid, for example, people who may be working within the UK healthcare environment,” says Melinda Morgan, associate HR director for IQVIA.

“With the RefuAid partnership, knowing that the individuals who came were qualified, experienced pharmacists who just needed to qualify for the UK put a different spin on it. We wanted to provide a day that we felt was meaningful for participants and utilised our skills at IQVIA.”

Designing an impactful event for pharmacists

This was not the first partnership that IQVIA has embarked upon to address areas of unmet need. The company has a rich history of partnering with external and non-profit organisations to advance public health efforts and improve access to healthcare around the world, having previously collaborated with Medicines for Malaria in Uganda, the American Medical Association’s Task Force to Reduce Opioid Abuse, and the CEO Roundtable on Cancer, to name but a few.

As Morgan highlights, during initial collaboration discussions it quickly became clear that RefuAid and IQVIA shared similar goals and values. By combining the former’s access to participants and experience of supporting refugees as they seek employment with the latter’s skills and in-house knowledge, the companies could develop a programme that benefitted both participants and hosts.

“It seemed like an absolute match,” she explains. “We could see RefuAid’s work in supporting refugees to access higher education and employment, and we knew that we have the skills, in-house knowledge, and employability support through our TA and HR experience.”

But having the right foundations in place was only step one in the process for the two organisations. For all involved, providing in-depth, useful information was paramount. As Morgan explains, “It was really important for us to make sure that the attendees came out of the day feeling that it had been a really valuable experience and increased their knowledge of the UK healthcare market.”

While RefuAid took on the task of identifying suitable participants for the event, IQVIA led the development of each session, with team members across the organisation working together to create the structure and content for the day. As such, employees from IQVIA’s Interface team of clinical pharmacists were able to utilise their specific skills in an unusual setting.

Knowing that each of the 12 attendees would come to the event with a high level of scientific knowledge, the organisational minds behind the sessions focused on supporting them in making effective applications.

To set the scene, IQVIA’s team opened the event with an overview of the NHS and the opportunities available for those with a pharmacist background.

“The NHS, as we all know, is quite an interesting world to navigate, and understanding all the different pharmacy roles within is really valuable,” says Morgan. “For example, there are lots and lots of opportunities within IQVIA, which need their pharmacist background, but they don’t have to have necessarily requalified in the UK to be eligible.

“A lot of people weren’t aware that, for example, you might use your pharmacy experience within medical information or pharmacovigilance or even our sales roles as well.”

Building on this foundation of information about the UK health system, IQVIA then invited attendees to take part in a series of interactive workshops, including CV writing activities and mock interviews, to demonstrate how pharmacists can use these skills in a professional job application.

“We focused quite a lot on UK expectations of CVs and interviews because refugee pharmacists come from a variety of different countries and backgrounds,” says Morgan. “For example, some people are used to putting salaries on a CV, which isn’t typically done in the UK.”

But while education and employment may have formed the main dishes of the day, for Morgan the relationship-building opportunities facilitated by the event offered an equally important element.

“One of the great things that we hadn’t recognised before that day was that the clients from RefuAid had never actually all met or been able to all congregate together as a group of pharmacists,” she explains. “You could see everybody sharing phone numbers, getting connections for later, and it was just wonderful. We really should not underestimate how incredibly valuable it was to have time to be together as a group and network with people of the same professional background and shared personal experience. Therefore, we will build in more time for this in future sessions.”

Fostering meaningful connections and partnerships

In the UK, where urgent demand for skilled health professionals is growing, supporting programmes to help refugee health professionals realise their full employment potential can open doors for a previously untapped workforce to enter the healthcare system.

“There are a lot of unusual barriers for people at the moment, such as accessing the right level of language training,” explains Morgan. “The more industry knows about these issues, the more they can do to help these individuals.”

By partnering with RefuAid, IQVIA team members were given a unique opportunity to develop relationships with each pharmacist. These are not just casual acquaintances, but valuable networking opportunities that can be mutually beneficial for both potential employees and those already working in the sector.

“This gives us access to more individuals who’ve got great skills and engagement and will be absolutely brilliant employees, but who maybe wouldn’t find it as easy to access our opportunities without that,” says Morgan. “Through our work with RefuAid, we opened up the opportunity and the doors, if you like, to a new group of people who maybe we didn’t automatically think of being able to approach for roles.”

But fostering these relationships requires continued support. As such, Morgan notes, IQVIA was keen to extend engagement activities beyond the initial event.

“The pharmacists have set up mentoring support, which will be reviewed over the next few months, but the idea is that that would potentially go over a six-month period,” she says. “It is something that RefuAid know is very valuable to their clients, but actually the lovely thing was our pharmacists, including people who were not there to support on the day, are also going to be involved in that.”

“There’s a much greater group giving support going forward. It’s just lovely that everyone can share their knowledge and experience,” she says.

Laying foundations for future collaborations

For IQVIA, designing a programme specifically aimed at helping refugee pharmacists build employment skills was an unknown – but very welcome – challenge.

“We didn’t know how much engagement there was going to be until we were looking for about 12 to 15 people, and RefuAid just came back instantly and said, ‘yes, we absolutely can do this’,” says Morgan.

For Morgan, establishing a solid partnership was an invaluable part of developing and delivering the employment event. By working closely together, IQVIA and RefuAid were able to leverage their strengths and provide support where needed.

“Any partnership is really based on good mutual outcomes and wanting the other party to succeed. Having that relationship in mind, regardless of whether it’s for profit or not,” she explains. “Being really open about timeframes and keeping in touch regularly is really vital for that. At IQVIA, we’re also very aware that we are taking people away from a billable work or day-to-day job sometimes in investing our time in that, so we need to think about how much time it takes to set these things up, but frankly, once you’ve done it once, it’s relatively easy to keep doing it in the future because we got all the baseline in there.”

The overwhelmingly positive response from attendees, RefuAid, and internal team members was an encouraging sign that IQVIA’s expertise and resources could provide considerable value for underutilised groups seeking employment opportunities.

“Everybody came out of it feeling that they had done something that was meaningful. The team was so happy that the individuals themselves were engaged on the day and could feel that they’ve positively contributed to other people, but equally were using knowledge and skills they had anyway,” she concludes.

About the author

Eloise McLennan is the editor for pharmaphorum’s Deep Dive magazine. She has been a journalist and editor in the healthcare field for more than five years and has worked at several leading publications in the UK.

About the interviewee

Mel M

Melinda Morgan associate HR director, IQVIA
Melinda Morgan has 25 years of experience working in healthcare leading engagement projects, delivering large scale teams and project builds with a strong focus on employee engagement and wellbeing programs across EMEA. She has worked in both the private and public sectors, including with social impact programmes supporting communities experiencing barriers to employment.

As a senior HR business partner and global project lead for IQVIA’s eight worldwide Employee Resource Groups, Melinda is highly experienced in driving talent strategies to maximise employee opportunities for development and project creation for opportunities to give back to the community.

About RefuAid

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