Pharmacy faces diversity issues

May 6, 2009

Pharmacy schools and practicing pharmacists around the United States recently said they noticed an imbalance in racial diversity in the field. The disparity has become so apparent that it is driving several organizations to do something about it.

Pharmacy school administrators and practicing pharmacists around the United States have commented recently upon a noticeable imbalance in racial diversity in the field. The discrepancy has become so apparent that it is driving several organizations to do something about it.

Even with pharmacy schools and community groups striving to increase awareness of the disparity, pharmacists are less racially diverse than physicians and others practicing in the medical field, said Carla White Harris, RPh, director of recruitment and diversity initiatives at the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy.

Of the 247,000 pharmacists registered in the United States in 2007, 5.9 percent were African American, 16.6 percent were Asian, 2.5 percent were Hispanic, and 75 percent were Caucasian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Those are the kinds of statistics that the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina is working to address, said David Mount, PsyD, MA, director of research and evaluation at the center.

“The thing that has to be done is to increase the visibility of underrepresented pharmacists - putting minorities on television, having them go to colleges and even high schools where kids begin to have a sense of what they want to do in the future,” Mount said.

One of the Angelou Center’s goals is to create partnerships with community institutions and organizations in order to develop innovative programs that will close the gaps in health and healthcare access for the underserved in regional, national, and international communities. One way the center is working to do that is by educating minorities about opportunities in healthcare professions where they are underrepresented. Of these, pharmacy is a major field, Mount said.

Mount said his program, Workforce Knowledge Enrichment, focuses on cultivating citizens who are aware of and interested in health equity and who want to increase their knowledge of many areas of healthcare. He visits high schools and colleges, sits on community boards, and regularly speaks with people about different careers in healthcare.

“As you can imagine, to many of the minority students in high schools, pharmacy isn’t even on their radar,” he said. “That’s how we try to build our program, trying to enrich those points.”

When students are asked what they want to do when they get older, some may say they want to become a physician or lawyer. Pharmacy isn’t generally mentioned, Mount said. He blames that on a pervasive lack of understanding of the requirements for pharmacy education and on the failure of pharmacy schools to explain their application processes. “Minority students aren’t made aware of pharmacy as a healthcare profession,” he said.

White Harris said that Eshelman School of Pharmacy has noticed a shortage of minorities attending the university. When the students hear there is an imbalance of minorities in healthcare professions, they want to step up and change it, White Harris said. They get excited to hear they can help change the pharmacy industry.

Practicing pharmacists who recently spoke with Drug Topics about the imbalance in the field hold varying opinions about what should be done about it. Chris Gorczycki, RPh, Akron Children's Hospital in Akron, Ohio, said that before talking with Drug Topics in early February, diversity in pharmacy wasn’t something he’d considered much in his 35 years of practice. “In my view, too many minorities have the attitude of ‘You owe me,’ when in fact they should be thinking, ‘I want to do XYZ, so I am willing to work hard and sacrifice to attain that goal,’” Gorczycki said.

However, he added, educational inequalities must also be resolved. “Diversification must start with vastly improving the education process in our major cities,” he said. “In my estimation, the vast majority of minorities receive an inferior primary education due to many factors, [including] lack of funds in the inner city and lack of motivation on the students’ part.”

Nichelle Jardine, RPh, New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, who said that she is one of about six minorities at her hospital, is beginning to see much more cultural diversity represented in the field. Jardine said that while she hasn’t participated in any efforts toward increasing the number of minorities in the industry, she has noticed the issue before and has thought about what can be done.

But she doesn’t think nonminorities care about the issue and therefore are less likely to notice what she considers a problem. “There needs to be an equal balance, depending on where you work. You might understand [certain] patients' needs better than someone who is not familiar with a different type of culture,” she said. “The only way to educate anyone about the field is to have someone who has the experience talk about it.”

Workforce Knowledge Enrichment began in 2007, so it’s still too early to tell whether there has been an increase in pharmacy and other healthcare professions in the area, Mount said. But what he does know is that students who have gone through the program have maintained their professional goals of working in healthcare.

One of the benefits of diversifying pharmacy would be that some customers feel more comfortable talking to their pharmacists, Mount said. “When minorities go to the pharmacist and they see someone who looks like them, there may be the facilitation of trust. There may be cultural issues that come up; you can ask certain questions and not feel embarrassed to do so.”

One thing the center has not tried is to partner with nonminority pharmacists who believe in the importance of spreading diversity throughout pharmacy; it wasn’t among the ideas mentioned for expanding diversity representation in the field. But it’s always worth a try, Mount said. “The center is always open to ideas for reaching its goal.”