What is clinical pharmacology?

Clinical pharmacology encompasses all aspects of the relationship between drugs and humans. It is the only medical specialty in the NHS focusing on the safe, effective and economic use of medicines. It is a diverse discipline that both sustains and advances best healthcare.

Clinical pharmacologists

Clinical pharmacologists are clinicians with training in clinical pharmacology and therapeutics (CPT). Their core goal is to improve patient care through the safe and effective use of medicines.

Clinical pharmacologists enjoy a great deal of diversity throughout their careers. Some choose to focus on a specialist area, but many combine a broad range of work to forge a unique career. Career paths in clinical pharmacology can align with many disciplines including:

Clinical medicine

Most clinical pharmacologists undertake clinical commitments throughout their careers. Many work in general medicine, supervising acute admissions and running outpatient clinics. Some will work as consultants in their sub-specialty interest.


Poisoning is one of the most common causes of admission to hospital. Clinical pharmacologists will oversee acute admissions and provide advice on acute poisoning cases. They are responsible for managing Toxbase, an evidence-based toxicology database. They will also lead on research and development in this area.

Scientific Research

Qualified clinical pharmacologists often work as researchers. Some trainees opt to undertake higher degrees such as PhD, MD or MSc.

Clinical Education

Many clinical pharmacologists teach prescribing in universities or act as medical experts.

Medicines policy and regulation

Clinical pharmacologists play crucial roles in local formularies and area drug and therapeutics committees. At a national level, CPT consultants often hold senior positions within drug regulation bodies. These include:

  • National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE)
  • The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)
  • pharmacovigilance schemes such as Yellow Card Centres

Pharmaceutical Industry

Formal training in clinical trial research is invaluable to the pharmaceutical industry. Some clinical pharmacologists will work in industry and contribute to drug discovery programmes.

The balance of clinical and academic is largely dictated by the needs of their main employer, either the NHS or universities. NHS consultants can:

  • deliver a clinical service
  • keep a strong research emphasis in their work
  • play an important role in undergraduate teaching
  • contribute to local medicines management

Why clinical pharmacology is important

Clinical pharmacologists can improve NHS efficiency through promoting rational, cost-effective use of medicines. Each £1 spent to hire more clinical pharmacologists has the potential to reduce NHS costs by almost £6. This saving reflects the benefits clinical pharmacologists can bring to the NHS through:

  • reducing poisoning events
  • minimising prescribing errors
  • de-prescribing ineffective medications
  • promoting adherence to prescriptions
  • reducing adverse drug reactions.

A quarter of a million people admitted to hospital in the UK each year after adverse reactions to commonly prescribed drugs. This costs the NHS close to a billion pounds a year.