Written By: Iqra Khaleel, Fourth-Year Student Pharmacist
Growing up in a family with a strong pharmacy background, I spent most of my life running away from the profession. My exposure began at a young age, when my mother took me to her small, privately owned pharmacy in Queens, N.Y. The pharmacy had a basement that was “kid friendly,” stocked with games, snacks, and anything else that might keep a six-year-old entertained for eight hours at a time. However, all of those distractions were never enough to stop me from venturing upstairs to watch my mom do her job. I watched her fill prescriptions and talk to doctors on the phone. “What a boring job,” I thought to myself. This became my outlook on the pharmacy profession for many years.
Time Changes a Person
However, as time went on, my perspective on the field changed dramatically. When I decided that medical school was not for me, I started looking into pharmacy school and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the role of the pharmacist had drastically changed since the days I spent at work with my mom. As the “medication experts,” pharmacists were now increasingly being recognized as critical members of the health care team. Thoroughly intrigued, I applied to pharmacy school and chose the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy as my training destination.
After three years in the classroom, it came time for me to pick out my fourth-year rotations. Our required rotations focus on ambulatory care, health systems, community practice, and acute care, and take place in a hospital, clinic, or a community pharmacy setting. However, in addition to required rotations, we can select two elective rotations. It was as I was reviewing available options for these elective rotations that I saw a new public health-focused rotation offered by Danya Qato, PhD, PharmD, MPH, assistant professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research. Having just learned about implementing community outreach and education programs in our public health course, I felt inspired to sign up.
A Journey into Uncharted Territory
I began my rotation on May 21, meeting my co-mentors, Jennifer Kirschner, MSPH, CHES, program manager for the Preventing Substance-Exposed Pregnancies (PSEP) Coalition at the Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD), and Dr. Qato. They explained that I was the first pharmacy student to ever rotate in BCHD’s Bureau of Maternal and Child Health, and possibly the first student pharmacist to rotate in BCHD as a whole. I was excited and anxious.
As we planned our goals for the five-week rotation, I learned that I would give a presentation to the multi-disciplinary PSEP Coalition that would provide an overview of what pharmacy is and how it can be integrated into the coalition’s efforts.
Gaps in the Knowledge
We began by crafting interview questions to better understand what key stakeholders, such as drug treatment counselors and family planning program administrators, know about pharmacy and what their programs’ pharmacy-related needs may be. This information would inform both my presentation as well as the work of the four additional students rotating with the PSEP Coalition this academic year.
Each of the eight interviews was unique in its own way. I started each interview by asking, “What comes to mind when I say ‘pharmacy’ or ‘pharmacist’?” Everyone I spoke to had their own interpretation of what a pharmacist does or what pharmacy is about. However, a common theme emerged from these interviews: there is little understanding of what EXACTLY a pharmacist is trained to do and how a pharmacist’s expertise is critical and beneficial to improving public health programs.
Clarifying Common Misconceptions
This theme became the driving force of my presentation to the PSEP Coalition, which I delivered on June 13. Motivated by my desire to educate these stakeholders about how the pharmacy profession has evolved, I crafted a presentation focused on what pharmacy education entails, the roles that pharmacists can play depending upon the setting in which they practice, and our special certifications and skills. Then, I integrated this information into a discussion about how pharmacists can apply their skills and training to a public health setting.
Despite my nerves, I felt knowledgeable, and even heroic in a sense, because I was able to educate people about a field for which I care deeply and clarify misconceptions about our work. (We are more than pill counters and white coat wearers!)
In my first year of pharmacy school, whenever I heard “rotations,” I always thought about hospital or community pharmacy. I never knew that there was a public health side to pharmacy. Increased education about what pharmacy is and the many ways it can be implemented in a community setting could benefit not only our profession, but also the communities we serve.
In fact, it was the education aspect of this rotation that had the greatest impact on me. I’ve always wanted to champion and help educate other health care providers and advocates on the far-reaching responsibilities of pharmacists and the integral role we can play as part of a health care team devoted to improving patient and community health. But, I never thought that I would have the opportunity to sit in a coalition meeting at a city health department and present to its members about who pharmacists are and how we can be a valuable asset to public health programs. I am grateful that I finally had this opportunity to make my voice heard.