What’s The Difference Between A Doctor And A Pharmacist?

Updated on: December 12, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Doctors and pharmacists often work together to care for patients and treat diseases using different medications.

But, what’s the difference between a doctor and a pharmacist?

A doctor’s role involves diagnosing patients and often prescribing medication for them to treat their condition. A pharmacist is a drug expert and can review whether a patient is on the best medication for their condition or if multiple drugs a patient is taking might interact.

I’ve worked with some absolutely brilliant pharmacists throughout my career as a doctor.

Their attention to detail and expert knowledge has saved me from prescribing the wrong medication on more than a couple of occasions!

Now, as the modern healthcare team evolves, the boundaries between doctors and pharmacists are becoming more and more blurred. In this article, I’m going to dissect exactly what sets the two professions apart (which may help you if you’re trying to decide which career to pursue).

The Differences Between Medicine And Pharmacy

Despite the similarities between the roles, there are some key differences between doctors and pharmacists:

Often leads a team of healthcare professionals to care for patientsActs as the subject matter expert for medications and their side effects
Generally work in either hospitals or GP practicesCan work in hospitals, GP practices, community or industrial pharmacies
Needs to complete 4-6 years at medical school to qualifyNeeds to complete a 4 year pharmacy degree
Average salary of £76,000 in the UKAverage salary of £47,000 in the UK
Highly patient focussed with lots of face-to-face interactionFewer patient contact hours with more of a focus on healthcare governance
Majority of doctors work clinically and are not focussed on researchOpportunity for being directly involved in the research and testing of new drugs

One of my good friends at university was actually a pharmacist who chose to retrain as a doctor.

He was able to work odd shifts as a pharmacist throughout his time at medical school so always had pocket money and I remember drove a very nice car!

Having laid out the main differences between the professions, let’s now delve into a bit more detail.

What Does A Doctor Do?

If I was working as a junior doctor on a ward in hospital, I may see a new patient who’s just turned up complaining of a cough.

After talking to the patient about their symptoms and listening to their chest with a stethoscope, I might diagnose them with a chest infection.

In order to treat this chest infection, I’d need to prescribe some antibiotics.

It would initially be my job, as a doctor, to evaluate and diagnose this patient, and then decide on a sensible course of action: in this case, prescribing some antibiotics.

If I wasn’t sure which medication would be best to prescribe, I could phone up the ward pharmacist to ask for their advice.

What Does A Pharmacist Do?

Slightly later on, a pharmacist may work their way around the ward looking at all the patients’ prescribed medications.

They’d see the new antibiotics that I’d prescribed for the patient with a cough. 

Now, pharmacists are experts in everything to do with medication: what they’re used for, their side effects and how they interact with each other.

A pharmacist selecting a medication

Drawing on this knowledge, they might actually think that a different antibiotic from the one I’d prescribed would be best for this patient.

This could be because of how an antibiotic might interact with other medications the patient is taking or because the patient’s chest infection would likely best respond to a different type of drug.

In either case, they’d generally then give the doctor a quick phone call to ask for the prescription to be changed.

Now, this was only one example of an interaction between a doctor and pharmacist in one setting- the hospital. But, hopefully it will have given you a feel for the different areas of responsibility between the two job roles.

Doctor Vs Pharmacist Salary

The vast majority of doctors are employed within the NHS. This means most doctors have fairly uniform earnings.

A newly qualified doctor will start on about £29,000 per year and will progress up to about £88,000 after 10 years of work and completing their training.

After this 10-year point, the doctor’s salary will continue to slowly increase as they gain experience and seniority, up to a maximum of approximately £119,000.

Difference Between A Doctor And A Pharmacist Pixel Infographic

Lots of pharmacists do also work in the NHS, but they’re far more likely to be employed in the private sector and so have more variable salaries.

A newly qualified pharmacist, in their first year of work, will earn approximately £27,000.

As they accrue experience, pharmacists in the NHS will then progress up the NHS band system- this is the pay ladder used for the majority of NHS staff (but not doctors).

As a chief pharmacist, which is the highest pharmacist position in the NHS, you’d be at band 9 on £109,000 per year.

Pharmacists can also own their own pharmacies, which are then contracted by the NHS to support patients in a particular geographical area.

This is a very similar model to GP practices and GP’s earnings.

Pharmacists who own their own pharmacy will earn varying amounts depending on how well their organisation is run, but can expect to earn £80,000+ if business is good.

Doctor Vs Pharmacist Training

The friend I mentioned earlier, who was the pharmacist retraining as a doctor, actually read pharmacy in the first place because he was initially unsuccessful at getting into medical school.

It was only as a postgraduate, on a second pass at the application process, that he was able to secure a place at medical school.

This is one of the most important differences in the training for doctors and pharmacists.

Getting into medical school is far more competitive and requires higher grades than studying pharmacy at university.

Typical offerAAAABB
Average length of study5 years4 years
Competition ratio3:15:1

However, that still isn’t to say training to be a pharmacist is easy.

4 years is still longer than any normal 3-year undergraduate course and you still have to learn and comprehend a huge amount of technical information.

Looking at the raw statistics, pharmacy courses do actually have a higher competition ratio than medicine programmes.

However, this is likely to represent a larger number of underqualified candidates applying (to try their luck), instead of reflecting an actual higher standard of applicant.

Both degrees are academically challenging (and require a lot of hard work from the students) but on balance medical school does pose a slightly larger challenge.

Doctor Vs Pharmacist Workplace

Doctors generally either work in hospitals or GP practices.

Specialist doctors, such as cardiologists, endocrinologists or surgeons, all work in the hospital. GPs work in the community in GP practices.

Although doctors can be employed in other roles, such as specialist medical advisors or work solely in research, these clinicians are in the minority.

Pharmacists on the other hand have a few more options open to them as to where they want to work.

Pharmacists can work in:

  • Hospitals
  • GP practices
  • Community pharmacies
  • Industrial pharmacies
  • Nursing homes
  • Retail stores

Wherever medication is being developed, stored or prescribed, you’ll likely either find a pharmacist or pharmacy technician.

Pharmacists working in a hospital pharmacy

I think some of the most exciting opportunities for pharmacists come from being involved in industrial pharmacy. That is, the development and testing of new drugs.

You could be a part of the team that develops the next COVID vaccine or the cure for cancer.

What Is An Advanced Practice Pharmacist?

An advanced practice pharmacist can really start to blur the lines between doctor and pharmacist.

An advanced practice pharmacist is a pharmacist who’s undergone specialist training in order to be able to see and treat patients independently, and can often prescribe medications for themselves. Advanced practice pharmacists generally work in GP practices to support the multidisciplinary team.

When I was on a GP placement as a medical student, one of the partners at the practice I was based at was an advanced practice pharmacist.

From my view as a medical student, he was almost indistinguishable from a regular GP.

He’d see new patients, diagnose them and prescribe the appropriate medications.

With his background in pharmacy, he was an expert at conducting medication reviews with patients and could answer any questions they had regarding their drug regime.

As an extremely experienced pharmacist, he was able to undertake the required training and qualifications to get to this point of pretty much taking on a doctor’s role.

However, when it came to more complicated patients, with multiple conditions or rarer presentations, the differences in the training of a GP and an advanced practice pharmacist did become apparent.

An NHS GP accrues a huge wealth of experience over the years that is extremely difficult to replicate when adopting the clinician’s role slightly later on in a career.

Because pharmacists can only become advanced practice pharmacists after many years of working as a pharmacist, they’ll never quite have the expertise a GP would for dealing with the more challenging of patients. 

Should You Study Medicine Or Pharmacy?

This last section is for you if you’re applying to university this year and are trying to decide between medicine and pharmacy.

I think you should study medicine if:

  • You’d enjoy working closely with patients to improve their quality of life
  • You’d enjoy the diagnostic challenge of treating patients
  • You have the grades and CV necessary to get into medical school
  • You want a career that you can mould to exactly what you enjoy

I think you should study pharmacy if:

  • You’re a good problem-solver and are technically minded
  • You want to work in a clinical setting without all of the responsibility of leading patient care
  • You want a well-paid job with a good work-life balance
  • You’re interested in the research and development of drugs

At the end of the day, they’re both great careers that can lead to exciting and rewarding work for anyone.

However, if you want my totally unbiased opinion as a doctor… then I think you should pick medicine.

Final Thoughts

Both doctors and pharmacists are integral members of the multidisciplinary team.

They both bring expert clinical and pharmaceutical knowledge to the table and work together to treat disease and relieve the suffering of patients.

However, the key differences lie in exactly where their areas of responsibility lie.

Pharmacists are the subject matter experts for anything to do with medications and their effects, while doctors direct treatment to achieve the best outcomes possible for a patient.

Although doctors have fair pharmaceutical knowledge and pharmacists can become fair clinicians, they both have distinct, irreplaceable roles in modern healthcare delivery.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.