Pharmacists Step into Leadership Roles

September 19, 2018

Pharmacists are increasingly being recognized for the value they bring to the table.

When pharmacist David Angaran, MS, FCCP, FASHP, first set foot on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, WI, in 1968, the campus, including students and faculty, was filled with protestors, activists, and other impassioned individuals challenging the social, racial, and political dynamism that defined the era. Three years before, President Lyndon Johnson had signed the Medicare Act. The law pumped money into the healthcare system, and Angaran, who was pursuing a Master of Science in Hospital Pharmacy and Residency, believes the pharmacy world benefited from the act’s passage.

“It was a time when people began to question authority,” recalls Angaran of the evolving culture he says helped ignite the initial flames in the evolution of pharmacy leadership. “Pharmacists began questioning the dialogue in prescribing medications and having discussions that facilitated and gave permission to people who were very bright to fulfill leadership skills.”

Today, that questioning has manifested into a variety of leadership roles held by pharmacists, roles that were either previously nonexistent or traditionally held by nonpharmacist health professionals, namely physicians and nurses.

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Now CEO of his own consulting firm, Communication Prescription, LLC, Angaran has held a variety of groundbreaking leadership roles, including overseeing medication therapy management programs, spearheading telepharmacy operations, and working in continuous improvement, while making a career-long commitment to pharmacy education.

Pharmacist Leaders in Action

Examples of pharmacist-trained leaders include Williams Evans, PharmD, former CEO at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; Michael Sanborn, MS, RPh, FACHE, president/CEO of Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center–Fort Worth; and James Klauck, RPh, MS, FACHE, FASHP, senior vice president at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, says James Hoffman, PharmD, chief patient safety officer at St. Jude.

Pharmacists are also serving as leaders in supply-chain management, quality, and clinical professional services, which allow them to leverage their training and experience in various facets of the health system experience, says Hoffman.

A big factor contributing to demand for pharmacist leaders is the growing recognition of pharmacists’ value, says James Jorgenson, RPh, MS, CEO of Visante, a health-systems compliance and managed care medication management company.

“The number one contributor to medical error is medication, and if you think about how medications are the fastest growing arm of healthcare, then pharmacy is an underutilized resource,” Jorgenson says. “So, if you really want to make an impact on healthcare, then engaging pharmacy is a logical solution.”

Advancement Tips

For pharmacists interested in pursuing leadership positions, attaining specialized training and leveraging unique skill sets is a smart move. 

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Jorgensen, a Drug Topics editorial advisor who has served as a vice president and chief pharmacy officer of Indiana’s largest state-based healthcare system and dean of a pharmacy school, pursued a dual master’s and hospital pharmacy residency program to expand his opportunities after spending a year in community practice.

Magaly Rodriguez de Bittner, PharmD, BCPS, CDE, FAPhA, also attained more specialized training to help her thrive in her role. After more than three decades of practice, the associate dean for clinical services and practice transformation at the University of Maryland began a fellowship in population health two years ago to better understand challenges in that area “from the leadership perspective.”

Rodriguez de Bittner’s additional educational efforts align with her work as executive director for Innovative Pharmacy Solutions at the university-a center that helps improve integration of pharmacists within the University of Maryland healthcare system in population management, using telepharmacy, disease state management, onsite pharmacist visits, and other services.

With his sights set on research, Hoffman, enrolled in a masters’ program with a concentration in health services research that had an administrative residency and fellowship in outcomes research and drug policy interwoven into the program after earning his PharmD in 2001.

Hoffman says his membership in Solutions for Patient Safety, an organization of more than 130 children’s hospitals, also enhanced his leadership skills when he transitioned from his role in medication safety to patient safety, by helping him quickly acquire industry-specific knowledge and identify critical issues.

Leadership Barriers

While awareness of pharmacist value is growing, many pharmacists interested in leadership roles still encounter barriers related to lack of knowledge regarding their abilities.

For Milap Nahata, MS, PharmD, director of the Institute of Therapeutic Innovations and Outcomes at Ohio State University, relentless persistence and optimism are two of the most critical elements to a career filled with numerous promotions and countless accolades. He recalls a situation in which many clinical journals rejected some of his initial publications because the idea of a pharmacist as the lead author was inconceivable at the time.

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Instead of becoming discouraged, Nahata empathized with the editors. “Had I been in [the journal’s] position, I might have done the same thing,” he says. Undeterred, Nahata continued to submit his research to various clinical journals and eventually his publications were accepted.

Born in India, Nahata says his mother set an early example of leadership by maintaining an optimistic outlook on life despite adversity and hardship. Nahata’s mother did not have much education, and his father had to work away from home.

“I grew up in a tough situation, and despite the challenges she had, my mother was very positive. Looking back, I learned about leadership from her, even though I didn’t really know what it was.”