Michael Yim always wanted a career which involved health care and provided the chance to serve the public. He realised, though, that he was not quite cut out for medicine and therefore dedicated himself to becoming a pharmacist. In the six years since entering the profession, he has had no cause for regret and, in fact, is convinced e has found his true vocation.
The journey began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which is the only local educational institution offering a three-year degree in pharmacy. Mr Yim had always been good at chemistry and this gave him something of a head start in the first term or two. However, he soon realised that pharmacy was a distinct and complex discipline requiring concentrated study and allowing no shortcuts.
After graduation, he started a one-year internship at Kwong Wah Hospital and Kowloon Hospital to gain more practical experience and believes this was a critical transition period. It gave a chance to apply and consolidate what he had learned at university and to start dealing with day-to-day cases. "It's not always easy to use all the theoretical knowledge in real-life situations," Mr Yim says. "For example, you have to advise in Chinese rather than English, which is the language used in the classroom."
Only those who successfully complete an internship can register as professional pharmacists. This creates a certain amount of pressure, since there is generally a heavy workload, plus the need to pass a final set of examinations. Mr Yim says that sticking to his personal motto of acting quickly, decisively and with accuracy helped him to get through.
You need to gain trust and quickly establish a good relationship
Though most of his classmates became community pharmacists straight away, Mr Yim initially opted to work in public hospitals. This mainly involved answering enquiries from doctors and working out the best combination of drugs for individual patients. However, after completing his contract with government hospitals, he decided that the direct contact with patients possible as a community pharmacist would be preferable. Therefore, in 2003, he became a pharmacist with Watsons.
In his current role, a proactive attitude and good communication skills are essential. "You need to gain trust and quickly establish a good relationship," he says. "Depending on where you work, you also need relevant language skills, which may be Japanese in Whampoa Gardens, Putonghua in tourist hot spots, or understanding English spoken with many different accents in Tsim Sha Tsui."
A high "emotional quotient" also helps in dealing with people from all walks of life. "A Chinese proverb says that many people eat from the same bowl of rice, which means you have to be ready for someone who's rude or stubborn, as well as everyone else," says Mr Yim. "No matter what, you must listen carefully to understand the problem and act patiently to find a solution."
Being able to help others is the most rewarding part of the job. Mr Yim still recalls how he taught one woman, who was desperately keen to have a baby, about how to use a pregnancy test kit. "When she finally got pregnant, she was so excited and grateful that she called me with the news even before she told her husband," he says, adding that he continued to give further advice up until the baby was born.
Mr Yim is now a senior pharmacist with Watsons with responsibility for overseeing frontline colleagues and supervising the customer enquiry hotline. In doing this, he is Hong Kong's first and so far only "information pharmacist".
Though playing a more supportive role these days, he is still very much in the thick of things when it comes to disseminating the latest medical information and pharmaceutical advice. He believes this is vital for enhancing the service offered to the public and, therefore, the most important of his varied responsibilities.
Mr Yim says there are currently few chances for Hong Kong-trained pharmacists to work in the mainland because of the different system of education and qualifications. Moreover, pharmacists across the border are also required to study aspects of traditional Chinese medicine. However, he does expect more opportunities to materialise in western countries, especially the US, where pharmacists are always in demand.