The Nontraditional Route

Exterior view of Family Pharmacy in Aiken, S.C.

The Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center pushes students to find gaps in the profession and fill them with radical roles.

By Athena Ponushis

Toward the end of her residency, Emily Russell called a pharmacy that she knew was not hiring to speak with the owner. She told him she had identified clinical services and potential revenue she could bring to his pharmacy. She asked if he would like to discuss the matter further. He asked her to please stop by for an interview. She showed up with an eight-page business plan.

“The original pitch for my position came from everything I learned in residency,” Russell said. “I built this business plan of services the pharmacy was already offering that I could enhance, future services I thought I could implement, as well as the return on investment for each one. That was all in my plan. Fortunately, I found the right pharmacy that was willing to take on a determined pharmacist with forward-thinking ideas.”

Dr. Russell, now a clinical pharmacist working at Family Pharmacy in Aiken, S.C., completed her community pharmacy residency through the Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center (KPIC) at the University of South Carolina College of Pharmacy. The center sees pharmacy as a frontier ripe with possibility and strives to act as a catalyst, connecting faculty, students and mentors to reshape pharmacy education and practice.

“We focus on students, pharmacists and technicians, helping them achieve their professional goals, particularly in the nontraditional route. That’s our aim,” said Dr. Patti Fabel, executive director of KPIC and clinical associate professor at the UofSC College of Pharmacy. “Everyone always says find your passion but it’s really built. We provide the materials and mentorship to help our students start building their passion, and by doing so, we hope to dramatically impact the personal and professional fulfillment of our graduates.”

Fabel and her colleagues took a good look at the college and what it offers, as far as coaching and career planning, and did precisely what they prepare their students to do: look at the pharmacy field and see the holes you can fill. KPIC exposes students to thought leaders and business influencers who show them sensible ways they can pursue their pharmacy dreams and elevate the profession.

A number of student pharmacists have essentially earned a business minor through the business program and more than 500 pharmacy professionals have been trained by KPIC, notably in the area of sterile compounding, since the center opened in 2010. The center exists thanks to the commitment of Bill and Lou Kennedy, co-owners of Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corporation, who gave an initial $10 million gift and an estate gift of an additional $20 million.

“KPIC is training the next generation of pharmacists, and Bill and I could not be more proud of the progress they continue to make,” Lou Kennedy said. “Thanks to the team of rock stars at the college of pharmacy and KPIC, students are blazing trails and truly making a difference when it comes to research and development, entrepreneurism and improved health outcomes. The best part is that they are just getting started.”

Providing Opportunities

When Russell was thinking about gaps in the profession and roles that she could fill, she envisioned herself working in a community pharmacy setting, interacting with the community while simultaneously working alongside physicians and their mutual patients. She met a few past residents who talked her through what they were doing post-residency. She took advice from all of them and built her business plan. Her original pitch to Family Pharmacy was to set up a medication synchronization program, work with nonadherent patients to improve mediation therapy management, start immunization clinics and initiate physician-pharmacist collaborations. Russell ended her residency in June 2018 and started her new job three weeks later, having convinced the owner to hire her for a nontraditional role.

“Pharmacy school is great and it teaches you so much, you learn about different career paths. But KPIC introduces you to people who are doing this in real life, people who can share insights with students who don’t have the experience yet or don’t know where to go to ask questions,” Russell explained. “If KPIC had not been involved in my residency or had not developed the business side of the residency, I may not have even known where to look for the information that I used to build my current career.”

Through the business program, students gain educational experiences and co-curricular opportunities. They compete in the pharmacy ownership business plan competition, intended to design creative practice models for community pharmacies and ultimately lead to more pharmacy entrepreneurs. The National Community Pharmacists Association sees “community pharmacies as ‘laboratories of innovation’ for the profession.” The top team from the college of pharmacy represents UofSC at the Good Neighbor Pharmacy NCPA Pruitt-Schutte Student Business Plan Competition.

KPIC also hosts an annual pharmacy ownership boot camp, where students and recent graduates engage with industry experts who share insights to help prepare them for independent pharmacy ownership or management. KPIC recently revamped its business program. Fabel and her colleagues identified the critical knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) of a pharmacy entrepreneur, mapped out the Pharm.D. program to see where these KSAs are covered and found places where the center could enhance the curriculum, ensuring that students are not only learning the KSAs but have opportunities to practice them.

It’s this commitment to academic innovation and practice transformation that Fabel believes makes the center visionary. “I feel pharmacy education of the future will be more competency based,” she said. “We will be guiding students, helping them use the information that’s out there. Rather than just providing information, we will be providing opportunities, collaborating with students, mentoring them and supporting them. That’s what I have been trying to do, not only as a faculty member, but as the executive director of the center.”

Through the career enhancement series, coaches help students with their resumes, CVs, elevator pitches and branding. Students see what networking actually means. They see what they can do with their Pharm.D. degrees. At the innovation career summit, which KPIC holds once a year, students are able to meet a variety of pharmacists working in nontraditional roles, whether it be information technology, public health, consulting or regulatory, board-of-pharmacy-type work.

Pharmacy education of the future will be more competency based. We will be guiding students, helping them use the information that’s out there. Rather than just providing information, we will be providing opportunities, collaborating with students, mentoring them and supporting them.

Dr. Patti Fabel

“If one of our graduates can create their own career that they find fulfilling, to me that is success. We have had several examples of students—either through the residency program or the business program—opening their own pharmacy, which may sound traditional but I would argue is pretty incredible in today’s market, because you have to be unique and offer more than dispensing services to survive. One former resident comes to mind who built a pharmacy within a mental health clinic, providing patient care services,” Fabel noted. “And we have people who have literally created a position that did not exist before they created it, either within an entity or they created their own business. That’s what I find rewarding. It’s a success story for the center, being able to help someone do that.”

Patient Satisfaction and Professional Fulfillment

The transformation of pharmacy practice may be its primary focus, but KPIC also evaluates the outcomes of pharmacy practice innovations. “KPIC operates in a collaborative practice and innovation environment. Its faculty, staff and students work with a variety of healthcare providers, policymakers and insurers (community pharmacies, Medicaid, hospital systems and physician family practices) to evaluate the outcomes and efficiency of practice innovations,” said Dr. Gene Reeder, director of outcomes research at KPIC and a professor at the UofSC College of Pharmacy. “These evaluations then inform the development of cost-effective, sustainable practice models that improve access to care as well as patient outcomes. For example, KPIC has supported pilot studies where pharmacists were imbedded in three family practice centers. These pilot studies demonstrated that pharmacists improved patient care, satisfaction and financial sustainability of the practices.”

KPIC continues to work with the South Carolina Pharmacy Association and its state department of health and environmental control on ways to promote and expand pharmacists’ collaborations with primary care centers, particularly in rural areas, in hopes of creating more job opportunities and improving patient care. KPIC recently engaged in a pilot with a rural health center, where a community pharmacy and a medical practice will share a pharmacist to further demonstrate the value and sustainability of having a pharmacist on the team.

Russell is still working on her goal to partner with local physicians to provide services under the community pharmacy name but has found that, especially in a small community, it might serve her best to establish herself in the community and get to know some of the providers better before pitching such a contemporary concept. “Traditionally, you think the doctor’s office is over here, the pharmacy is over there. You go see your doctor, then go to your pharmacy, but the idea of a pharmacist being in the same place as a doctor, making recommendations or talking about your medications at your visit, it’s so new to some practices that these initial talks are taking a while. I am still hopeful,” she said. Trying to imagine what her career would look like without KPIC, she added, “Honestly, I think I still would have had the same dreams and ambitions for myself, but it would have taken a lot longer to get there because I learned so much in that one year of residency through the Kennedy Pharmacy Innovation Center.”

Pushing students to pursue their pharmacy dreams and carve out careers they find fulfilling has given Fabel her own sense of fulfillment. “I went into pharmacy because I like to help people and I want to be of service and it led me into academia where I get to help students,” she said. “What I love about the center is that I get to play a part, even if it’s just a small part, in helping someone achieve a goal, and that goal could be as big as a career.”

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