By Keith Loria

This article previously posted at Drug Topics – Voice of the Pharmacist.

(February 12, 2020) Despite some data showing the number of minorities in the field of pharmacy are increasing, industry experts still characterize the overall numbers as low

Deterrents include lack of exposure to the field and barriers to pharmacy school admission, including student and family financial burdens, standardized test-taking challenges, and implicit bias.

Lakesha M. Butler, PharmD, clinical professor of pharmacy and coordinator of diversity and inclusion at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, as well as president of the National Pharmaceutical Association, said that when assessing the state of minorities in pharmacy it is important to differentiate between the use of the term “minorities” versus “underrepresented minorities.”

“Underrepresented minorities in pharmacy include those racial and ethnic groups that are underrepresented in the profession when compared to their numbers in the general populations,” she said. “These groups include African Americans, Hispanic/ Latino, American Indian/Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. There has been improvement in the current state of minorities in pharmacy compared to 10 or more years ago. However, there still exists significant disparities in the percentage of minority pharmacists and minority students compared to the US minority population.”

Butler became interested in the field as a college student when she learned of the variety of career options that exist in pharmacy

Lakesha M. Butler, PharmD

“Additionally, I shadowed a minority hospital pharmacist to explore the career,” she said. “I had not previously considered pharmacy because I just was not exposed to it. Discovering that I could play an intricate role in the health of patients, specifically through medication and disease state management, and work alongside physicians and other health care workers as a team was intriguing and resulted in me pursuing pharmacy.”

Ahmed Ali, PharmD, owner of Othello Station Pharmacy in Seattle, Washington, is originally from Somalia and studied pharmacy at Washington University. Over the years, he’s managed a Walgreen’s pharmacy, worked at clinics, and now operates the only pharmacy in Seattle owned by someone of his descent. Pharmacists that work there speak 7 different languages to appeal to all types of people.

“I was always interested in starting something in the same neighborhood that took me in when I came here as a refugee in 1997,” he said. “The South Seattle neighborhood has changed significantly since then, but a lot of the same people still live here and I wanted to cater to them and provide a service different than the big-box and chain pharmacies.”

A big reason he believes the industry isn’t as diverse is simply access to proper education, plus money for school and living. He noted unless we remove barriers, there will be a major lag to increase the numbers properly and at the speed many are hoping for.

Nonye Uddoh, PharmD, is an African American woman of Nigerian descent and currently works as a clinical pharmacist at UnitedHealth Group after working for SUPERVALU Pharmacies in Maryland. She became interested in the field because her mom was a pharmacist and told her how much money they were making at the time.

“I was finishing up my degree in biology and considering research, however I applied to Temple Pharmacy School and got in and so abandoned research pursuits,” she said.

In her current role, she has seen an upswing in the amount of minorities in the field and is pleased with the direction hiring is going.

“For example, most of my pharmacy team are minorities—African Americans, many from Nigerian descent, Middle Eastern descent, many Asians and Asian-Americans, many Hispanics, Russians and many women,” she said. “Where I work, the pharmacist who speaks an additional language such as Spanish or Cantonese/Mandarin are in higher demand than their English-speaking counterparts.”

The Road to Ownership
Xavier Bryant, owner and founder of Bryant Pharmacy & Compounding, located in Decatur, Georgia, noted the road to opening his own pharmacy wasn’t easy.

“I couldn’t get a loan so I just ‘bet on black,’ [my wife and I] pooled our funds, took from our 401Ks and invested in an operation that we knew we could perform well in,” Bryant said. “That was 5 years ago and since then, we’ve opened up a couple of other pharmacies and continued to diversify in the health care space.”

For Bryant, opportunities for people of color in the field weren’t easy to come by. As a result, he feels it is his duty to inform minority pharmacy students all they need to know to get a chance at ownership themselves. He regularly talks with students at Mercer University and started his own summer program to teach high school students about the field.

“It is my intention to teach every minority student who comes through my professorship the principals of owning a pharmacy—being creative about finances, location analysis, market analysis—so I plant the seed in their head early,” he said. “I believe pharmacy is an excellent career to go into and a great way to help the community.”

Taking Action
John Mansour, who is Egyptian, attended Florida A&M University for pharmacy school following in the footsteps of his mother who is the director of pharmacy for Winter Park Hospital in Orlando. He would like to see more action taken in appealing to children at a young age.

“Minorities in the field, along with their institutions, should go talk to our kids in school during career days and explain what they do, how they got there and let them see that anyone can do it if they work at it,” he said. “It’s really positive to show kids people who look like them working in fields they may not think are accessible. That helps make dreams seem more attainable and it gives students role models.”

Butler agrees that exposure—as early as elementary school—is key for improvement.

“This exposure can be accomplished through summer camps, community outreach programs, middle and high school career days, or job shadowing opportunities,” she said. “Implement media and marketing strategies to promote minorities in pharmacy to allow students to see themselves in this career. Make intentional efforts to recruit and retain minority students and faculty into pharmacy school to enhance representation. Also, offer available financial and academic support for those in need to reduce barriers.”

Butler leads a high school summer camp at her institution for minority students interested in health care careers including pharmacy and also participates in numerous community outreach initiatives such as health fairs, flu clinics, and church presentations to showcase minorities in pharmacy.

“I have offered job shadowing to a number of minority students who were exploring health care career options and are now in pharmacy school,” she said. “Additionally, in my national pharmacy roles, I advocate for minority representation, diversity education, and diversity and inclusion efforts to be a priority and intentional.”

At Othello Station Pharmacy, Ali brings students of color in for internships and is happy to talk with youngsters who ask how he became a pharmacist.

I didn’t have that experience so I am happy to have that conversation with them,” he said. “When you don’t give students an ability to come and understand what the career path looks like, then they don’t know whether to pursue the career.”

Uddoh feels pharmacy schools can better emphasize their minority associations, such as the Student National Pharmaceutical Association, which is a minority-based pharmacy association.

To make women more interested in the field, pharmacy schools can emphasize the diverse field of pharmacy including pharmacists who work from home and work in offices with 9-5 hours Monday through Friday,” she said.

Personally, she serves as a mentor with Capella University and provides support to colleagues on LinkedIn when needed.

When Ali was in pharmacy school, out of nearly 100 students, there were only 4 students of color. He’s paid attention to the graduation rate over the years and said although it’s better, the numbers are still low.

“The way the system is set up, a lot of students of color are not exposed to the pharmacy field or connect with professionals that look like them,” he said. “Pharmacy is a very unique environment and sometimes you have to be connected with one to understand what a pharmacist does and what a career looks like.”

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