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Nathan Burley: My Working Life

Published on: 20 Jul 2023

Nathan Burley: My Working Life


Can you describe your work in 1 sentence?

Not really. It’s part governance, part management, part clinical, part politics, part project management – and no two weeks are the same.


What qualities do you think you need to do your job well?

A good grasp of how complex systems work and knowing where you’re best placed, as a pharmacist, to add value. A healthy dose of gumption and a keenness to try different ways of working. Knowing when to push for change and knowing when to walk away.


What did you want to be when you were at school?

Law strongly appealed to me. At school, for work experience, I spent a week in a law office on the military base my family lived on in Germany. It was incredible to see Nuremberg trial transcripts in the office and I got thrown out of a local municipal court because the translator with me was telling me in English what was happening, to the annoyance of the judge. 


Why did you change your mind?

I enjoyed those experiences, but the amount of lone working required as a solicitor really put me off. I spent the following week with an Australian physiotherapist treating military personnel, had a great time, and saw a future for myself in healthcare.


What are the main 3 factors that make you frustrated at work? 

Insincerity, unkindness, and laziness.


Why would you recommend your career to a young person? What positive aspects would you highlight?

There are so many different areas of pharmacy you can go into. There are pharmacists in business, policy making, clinical practice, and in practically every hospital ward in the country making sure medicines are used effectively.

Plus elsewhere in a hospital, there’s pharmacy teams producing and signing off batches of chemotherapy or radioactive medicines, a medicines governance team and pharmacists leading change and transforming services. If you don’t thrive in one area you can move to another very easily.


Have you had any unusual experiences/career opportunities that have led you to where you are today?

I was launched into the wider pharmacy arena as the youngest ever President of the Guild of Healthcare Pharmacists last year. It has been quite the experience and a steep learning curve – I’ve learned a lot about the wider pharmacy world and a lot about myself. Having to get a handle on pharmacy developments across the UK has been a challenge.


What has been your biggest career disappointment or challenge and why, and how did you overcome it?

Pharmacy seems to be an area in the NHS where we’re developing a culture of making people do more for less. We need to be careful to balance professional development with appropriate remuneration and working conditions.


What was your best career move?

Going for a senior pharmacist job in public health, I always wanted to work at a population level but my enthusiasm was balanced with a healthy dose of realism about it being a fairly big role at an early stage of my career.

Liz McGovern – the now-retired public health pharmacist who appointed me – was a force of nature and taught me that sometimes pluckiness pays off. Jumping into sexual health was a natural fit for my skill set. The people I work with at Sandyford (Scotland’s largest sexual health clinic) make my days there a joy.


What does the ideal pharmacy workplace look like? 

Opportunity, flexibility, and challenge. The first and last speak for themselves but I think we really need to make work more flexible. People’s attitudes to work have fundamentally changed as people work to live and not vice versa.

Working from home/different work locations and flexible/part-time hours are here to stay, and we need to change how we model our staffing to incorporate as much flexibility as possible if we want to keep young people coming into the workforce.


What’s the best advice you’ve ever got from a patient or work colleague?

“Sometimes you need to see the whites of their eyes” – this was said to me in the context of getting face to face with people to get their buy-in or support for a project. I think in the Teams/Zoom era this is extremely apt.

You can’t beat the energy of face-to-face communications for some meetings. You get so much from the conversations that happen beforehand and afterward or off during the side. 


If you could go back in time and give one piece of career advice to your younger self, what would it be? 

Don’t let yourself get bogged down in things at work that really aren’t worth your time – read a book, go for a run, touch some grass.


If there was one thing you could change about your role or the physical or policy environment you work in, what would it be and why?

Proper resourcing of public health teams to deliver population level change. There are a lot of politicians who pay lip service to public health and then fail to adequately equip the NHS for proper delivery of prevention and population level health protection.

Over the past year we’ve seen slashed budgets and huge staffing cuts to Public Health Scotland and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), alongside the dismantling of the architecture built to deal with covid-19 which is frankly disappointing and, arguably, dangerous. 


What advance in medical/pharmaceutical technology would have the greatest impact in your field?

The expansion of novel vaccination platforms for developments in immunisation combined with dynamic production of stable multivalent preparations. Imagine if you could be vaccinated for 30, 50, 100 conditions early in your life, potentially incorporating your genetic makeup and what you’re predisposed to developing!

Prevention is always better than cure. Perhaps I’ll add the expansion of safe and robustly governed embryonic gene editing to remove genetic predispositions to diseases – although that is a long way off – it plays into the same principle.


What do you hope will be your legacy to your profession and colleagues? 

I’ve worked to provide equitable access to painkillers and anti-sickness tablets wherever a patient lives in Scotland. I’ll also work to continue to improve access to healthcare services for trans people.

People, including pharmacists, who design health services and care pathways often may not realise the power they have to improve peoples’ healthcare experiences and to protect vulnerable and marginalised groups in society.


What do you do to relax?

I love running and have recently gotten more into swimming. Although I used to be a lifeguard, I was never very good at swimming long distances. I joined a triathlon club recently and that, although challenging initially, has really helped my technique. I also go to the gym and am a big fan of a large glass of picpoul de pinet.


Do you have a morning routine – something you always start your working day doing?

I get the train to work. Having a flask of black coffee, listening to a podcast, firing off some emails and planning my tasks for the day is now my usual routine.


Who has been your biggest inspiration?

My parents and sister. My mother is very tenacious and has always helped drive me forwards. My late father had formidable stamina when it came to work and exercise and I took up running as a kid because he was such an inspiration doing marathons and other long distance events.

My sister has two young sons, a husband, and a beautiful golden retriever and, again, has this incredible endurance to just keep going. She makes it all look very easy!


Where are you happiest and why?

Barassie beach, Troon, Ayrshire – stunning views.


If you could be invisible for a day what would you do?

I really love seeing how things work behind the scenes.Maybe I’d sneak into Westminster or Scottish Parliament and be privy to the real conversations that happen out of the public eye. 



Nathan Burley has worked mainly in hospital pharmacy then branched into more niche roles. He graduated from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen in 2017 and trained at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, registering as a pharmacist in 2018. He spent the next two years there as a rotational pharmacist covering medical and surgical wards. 

During 2020, with the covid-19 pandemic in full swing, Nathan moved to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital as a specialist pharmacist working in endocrinology, general medicine, and the acute receiving units.

After six months he moved to public health in early 2021 in a senior pharmacist capacity at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and now splits this with a remit in sexual health as an advanced pharmacist.