The Next Chapter

Lee Vermeulen

As AACP’s new Executive Vice President and CEO, Lee Vermeulen intends to promote the value of pharmacists while developing more innovative practice models to boost pharmacy school enrollment.

By Athena Ponushis

Lee Vermeulen got his first glimpse into pharmacy while dusting shelves as a five-year-old at the hospital pharmacy where his father worked in Western New York. His father, the hospital’s first pharmacist, convinced the medical director to bring him on as he had been working at the community pharmacy for years, and immediately started making innovative moves. He built one of the first unit dose systems in the country in that small hospital that had only 82 beds. He was one of the first pharmacists in New York state to create an intravenous admixture program. He started a parental nutrition consult service. Vermeulen watched his dad do it all. Having been an observer of pharmacy his whole life, he now finds himself in a position, as the seventh Executive Vice President and CEO of AACP, to bring his own innovative thinking to a transformative time in pharmacy.

Vermeulen never imagined that the AACP board of directors would choose him. He was an outsider, working as the chief efficiency officer for UK HealthCare, the health system for the University of Kentucky. He wasn’t even an AACP member. But over a phone call one night, talking about something else entirely, Lucinda Maine said, “You know, I really think you ought to apply for this job.” Vermeulen applied the next morning.

Working outside of pharmacy for 15 years, he did his best to stay connected—publishing in the pharmacy space, staying involved with the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), American College of Clinical Pharmacy (ACCP) and the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP)—but he felt detached and he wanted to turn back. “You start to lose touch with the critical issues if they are not part of what you are doing every day, and for the last four or five years, especially during the pandemic, I started thinking, ‘It’s really time to get back home,’” Vermeulen said.

He had built himself into an executive leadership position and a career path that was divergent. He stopped and asked himself, “What do I want to do? How do I want to get back? I didn’t want to give up all these things that I love doing as a health system executive as part of moving back home, if you will, professionally. With this job, I thought I could definitely leverage everything I’m good at, get back to my professional roots and make an impact for an association that I could become passionate about, and that’s really important to me. I need to believe in what I’m doing, and this was just it.”

Filling an Advocacy Role

Vermeulen’s work in the past few years has focused on business development, identifying value streams where an organization can leverage its strengths in a way that meets its mission and produces new revenue sources. Finding those situations where it could spend less and still gain more is the value equation that encompassed the work he was doing at UK HealthCare. His responsibilities extended beyond pharmacy across the enterprise of all disciplines, but he kept looking back at pharmacists, telling his colleagues, “There are very few things you can do in a health system that will give you as much return on investment as adding a pharmacist into the care team.”

Looking at health systems in the United States today, Vermeulen says a key to success is reducing inpatient readmission rates: “If I’ve got a patient in the hospital, you need to get them home and keep them home. That’s the coin of the realm. You need to do that to succeed in a value-based structure in a hospital, especially at an academic medical center and even more in a place like Kentucky, where they’re admitting patients from the entire state, particularly from communities that are medically underserved. Many patients don’t have primary care doctors. What do they have? They have a pharmacist. Finding ways of leveraging the incredible care pharmacists provide every day is essential to our success.”

The ability to see healthcare delivery systems in a different light may have been what caught the attention of the AACP board. Where others see problems, Vermeulen sees possibilities. He’s also a strategic planner. “Whether it was financial forecasting, expenditure forecasting or looking at the entire landscape of the healthcare market and trying to think about what’s coming that will affect pharmacy, I’ve been doing that my whole career as a way of informing strategic planning work,” he explained. He sees strategic plans as the day-to-day map to the future, and when he saw AACP’s 2021–24 strategic plan, it caught his attention.

“When you read our strategic plan, there are a number of intentional, deliberate and specific things we are going to do. You look for action verbs in strategic plans, and a lot of strategic plans you read are very vague. ‘We’re going to improve the culture of our association.’ Great, but what does that mean? When you read our plan, there are dozens of very specific actions,” he noted. “I look at this and think, ‘I want to work this plan.’”

Vermeulen’s top priority is increasing enrollment in colleges and schools of pharmacy to develop the size and diversity of the workforce the profession needs. “A lot of people look at this and say, ‘We’ve got a supply side problem, we’ve got too many colleges of pharmacy, we’ve got too many seats.’ I look at that and say, ‘No—we have a demand side problem.’ We need to help everyone—including pharmacists themselves—to recognize the value that they bring. That will lead to more innovative practice models, it will lead to greater demand for pharmacists and it’s going to be demand for jobs that are going to be incredibly rewarding and exciting for pharmacists. They are going to be amazing jobs, which will completely change the negative narrative about our profession that you hear from many pharmacists today.”

We need to help everyone—including pharmacists themselves—recognize the value that they bring. That will lead to more innovative practice models, it will lead to greater demand for pharmacists and it’s going to be demand for jobs that are going to be incredibly rewarding and exciting for pharmacists.

Lee Vermeulen

His overarching plan would be to solve the problem of professional identity, build new practice models and help expand enrollment. Clear as Vermeulen’s vision may be, he realizes the problem will not be solved right away. “You’re going to ask me a decade from now, and I’m probably going to say the same thing: We’ve got to continue to build out those practice models to sustain the increase in enrollment that we’ve seen over the last decade.”

And Vermeulen sees AACP’s strategic plan as a means to that end—devoting effort to practice transformation; getting the AACP Transformation Center up-and-running; addressing diversity, inclusivity and anti-racism; addressing health disparities; and focusing on well-being and burnout to ensure that pharmacists are able to care for patients. “I wake up every day thinking about our strategic plan and our revenue streams, but I see it all as interconnected,” he said. “If we solve the problem of professional identity, if we progress the growth of pharmacists in innovative practice models, it will solve several other challenges and it will move us forward on the diversity and equity agenda.”

Regarding enrollment concerns, “we are not leveraging the advocacy that we could lever as a profession. We are not leveraging the advocacy that doctors could give us, but most importantly, we are not leveraging the advocacy our patients could give us, that sense of ‘I wouldn’t know what to do without my pharmacist.’” Where Vermeulen sees opportunity would be the skillset and presence of pharmacists in the healthcare system and the strength of the educational process and academic resources that can help advance innovative practice models. He would like to package that strength, communicate it and advocate for it better.

Where he sees work would be professional identity. “I don’t know another profession that is so self-critical,” Vermeulen said. “We will forgo improvements because they’re not perfect and we will sit around and wait for the perfect answer to something even though the good answer will get us further than where we are today.” He acknowledged that there are parts of this psychological makeup of a pharmacist that serve the profession well, especially when it comes to accurately dispensing medications. “However, we need to build programs and activities that allow us to overcome the drawbacks of our psychological endowment so we can see it and not fall victim to it.”

Vermeulen describes himself as a participatory leader with a caveat: he’s not afraid to make decisions or stand accountable. “When we do forecasting work, one of the things that I spend a lot of time thinking about is making sure that we have tapped the wisdom of the crowd because I think it really helps you make better informed and more durable decisions. That definitely is part of my [leadership] style.”

Even though Vermeulen did not expect to land the job, he pursued it because he missed pharmacy. He hopes that everything he gained on his path away from pharmacy will help guide AACP’s path. “I’m giving it everything I’ve got, because when somebody welcomes you as warmly as I was welcomed, you immediately have a sense of obligation to them. This is probably my last professional role, so I want to give this association, the Academy and my profession everything I’ve got.”

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.