10 reasons pharmacists should volunteer their time and expertise

June 23, 2014

If it’s a positive return on investment you seek, look no further than your local free medical clinic.

Kelly HowardWe all know the standard reasons we should volunteer our time as pharmacists: We have an obligation to help those less fortunate than we are, it benefits our community in untold ways, etc.

 This article is not concerned with any of those reasons. The purpose of this article is to compel you to discover opportunities to volunteer at a free or charitable medical clinic near you, so it highlights the completely selfish, altruism-free reasons that we should all be spending some of our time off from our jobs as paid pharmacists to volunteer somewhere else as unpaid pharmacists.

1.     Résumé building. I wasn’t lying when I said “completely selfish.” If your résumé is a little sparse - or even if it isn’t - a long history of volunteer work on your résumé tells a prospective employer that you are dedicated to patient care and passionate about the profession of pharmacy. 

2.     Expand your horizons. Free clinics often serve the sickest patients, those who have spent extended periods of their life with no access to healthcare. You will see insulin doses in the stratosphere, rare skin conditions you’ve never seen outside of Google images, and disease states more advanced than you thought were possible. Consequently, you will see ingenious uses of inexpensive medications, old-fashioned solutions to contemporary conditions, and noticeable improvement in the quality of life of even your sickest patients, once they receive treatment.

3.     Networking. As mentioned in a previous article (10 tips for landing your next pharmacy job; www.DrugTopics.com, May 14, 2014), volunteering at your local free medical clinic allows you to interact with other volunteer healthcare practitioners, who may have inside information on job opportunities or who might be willing to serve as professional references for a future job search. In addition, the environment of a free clinic enables you to build collaborative relationships with other local providers that would not otherwise be possible.

4.     Warm fuzzies. When was the last time you received a heartfelt thank-you card from a patient? Every free medical clinic has a bulletin board or refrigerator door covered with letters from patients that will make even the most jaded among us misty-eyed.

5.     Pharmacy unleashed. You can talk face-to-face with physicians who not only respect your opinion, but who actively seek out your expertise.

6.     Pass it on. I take every student I precept along with me to my shifts at the free clinic. Most of my students cite the hours spent at the clinic as the most educational and meaningful they experienced the entire month. I feel it’s my duty to instill the importance of volunteerism in the next generation, and it gives me immense pride to say that several of my former students are now volunteer pharmacists at their own local free medical clinics.

7.     Grateful patients. No, you didn’t read that wrong. The vast majority of your patients will thank you profusely for your time, treat you with unabashed respect, and openly refer to both you and your technician as “Doc.”

8.     Fill in the blanks. As a volunteer pharmacist, you are likely to be presented with unique opportunities to provide pharmaceutical care that your practice setting might not offer you. If you’re a hospital pharmacist by day, you can give flu shots and counsel patients. If you’ve been a community pharmacist all your life, you can collaborate with a physician to develop treatment algorithms or test your skills by leading a diabetes education class. If you’d like to gain management experience, it’s likely your local free clinic has a well seasoned pharmacist-in-charge who would be happy to mentor you.

9.     What’s missing. Free clinics are not without their challenges, but they also lack some key irritants - insurance billing, verbally abusive customers, ringing phones, oppressive time constraints, dispensing quotas, and moody co-workers.

10. Renew your spirit. Deep down, most of us went to pharmacy school for the same reason trite reason - we wanted to help people. Along the way, we’ve been burdened with administrative duties, hostile patients, and a million other things that have succeeded in making us forget why we spent five to eight years of our lives getting a pharmacy education.

Undoubtedly most of your community pharmacy patients are in a hurry to get somewhere or do something: pick up the kids, make dinner, etc. Your free clinic patients may also be in a hurry, but it’s more likely that they are trying to catch the last bus home or need to get to the food pantry before it closes, or they have to be in line for a shelter bed by a certain time.

These are patients with real problems beyond their obvious medical conditions. These are the patients who teach us far more than we could ever teach them. These are the patients we lose sleep over and feel genuine benevolence for, the ones who renew our spirits and compel us to be the pharmacists that we want to be.

I challenge you to spend one shift as a volunteer pharmacist at your local free clinic and not leave feeling more fulfilled and more appreciated than when you started your shift.

The economy is still difficult and the job market for pharmacists is treacherous, so we must be judicious with our time, but if it’s a positive return on investment you seek, then look no further than your local free medical clinic. 

Kelly Howard is a freelance pharmacist in Southeastern North Carolina. She volunteers at the New Hope Free Clinic, for all the right and wrong (free pizza) reasons. She would love to hear about your volunteer experiences. Contact her atkelly@gottsman.org or www.thefreelancepharmacist.com