The Best of the Best: 2021 Pharmacy Award Winners

Four winners of the SingleCare Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards joined Drug Topics® to share their knowledge with fellow pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

When Drug Topics® sat down with a group of winners of the 2021 SingleCare Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards, humbled quickly became the word of the day.

“I’m very honored, very humbled, by this national award,” said Triet “Tony” Nguyen, RPh, pharmacy manager at Safeway in Annandale, Virginia, and winner of the 2021 Above and Beyond Award. “I guess my customers appreciate my service to them, and that’s why they nominated me.”

For the third year, prescription savings service SingleCare held their Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards, recognizing 25 outstanding pharmacy professionals from around the United States. This year’s awards generated thousands of nominations and honored 10 pharmacists, 10 pharmacy technicians, and 5 pharmacy teams who go above and beyond on a daily basis.

“We are honored to be able to celebrate the pharmacists, techs, and teams that continue to go above and beyond to provide exceptional care and support for their customers," said Rick Bates, founder and CEO of SingleCare. "As pharmacy staff across the country have been stretched beyond their limits over the past year, these awards are especially meaningful in recognizing the critical work pharmacists do to support their communities each and every day."

For Jennifer Bourgeois, PharmD, of Market Street Pharmacy in McKinney, Texas, and winner of the 2021 Best Pharmacist Award, the recognition is proof positive that she is serving where she is best fit. “I think being in health care sometimes seems thankless,” she said. “We’ve put in so many hours, and we’re happy to do that, but just to be recognized by the people that we’re actually showing up for means the most. That’s really what we’re all there to do: to take care of our people, our patients.”

Eric Geyer, PharmD, winner of the 2021 Most Influential Pharmacist Award, was also humbled by the recognition. “For the past 2 years, I’ve really leaned in to trying to be a voice for professional pharmacy,” he said. Geyer recently transitioned from a retail pharmacist role to working as pharmacy director for The Centers for Families and Children in Cleveland, Ohio, overseeing operations for 5 outpatient or community-based pharmacies, in addition to managing the operations of pharmacy residents and a clinical team—all while navigating the complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I had to think about all of the issues of the pandemic, [how to do] things virtually, and how do I keep us at a safe distance,” Geyer explained. “It’s been a pretty interesting challenge.

“It’s exciting for us in community pharmacy to be able to have such an instrumental role in the availability of the vaccine for our communities,” said Bourgeois, who transitioned into a clinical role just as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began. “But also, the demands on community pharmacy right now are at an all-time high. Our roles and our responsibilities…the list is just getting longer.”

For Sidrah Alam, a pharmacy intern at Wegmans Pharmacy in Leesburg, Virginia, and 2021’s Best Up-and-Coming Pharmacist, these challenges demonstrate the impact that the pharmacy profession has on the wider health care industry.

“It’s amazing to see how we have [an] impact no matter what setting we’re in,” Alam said.“I think a lot of people don’t realize that all of health care is important and that we’re all part of this team to make sure that all of our patients are comfortable and getting the best care.”

Alam is a pharmacy student at Shenandoah University Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy in Fairfax, Virginia, and will be graduating in May 2022 with her doctor of pharmacy degree and a master of science degree in pharmacogenomics

“Pharmacists have been on the front lines, and I hope that we stay that way,” she said. “I hope that everyone realizes the impact that we can have.”

Her advice for student pharmacists who will be joining the profession is simple: keep an open mind. “You never really know where your pharmacy journey will end up,” Alam said.“Follow your heart; you will find what you are passionate about [and] if you’re passionate about it you’ll find away. Stay involved, be active, and continue to advocate for the profession.”

Check out our roundtable conversation below, and don’t miss our one-on-one conversations with Bourgeois, Nguyen, and Alam, where we dive deeper into their pharmacy journeys.

Drug Topics®: Hi, everyone. I'm Lauren Biscaldi, and I'm the Managing Editor of Drug Topics®. I'm here today with 3 of the winners of the third annual SingleCare Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards. This year's awards generated thousands of nominations from SingleCare customers around the country, and resulted in a total of 25 winners, representing the best of the best.

I'd like to kick things off today with some introductions. Can each of you tell us a little bit about yourselves, what award that you won and what it is that you do for work? Jennifer, would you like to get us started?

Jennifer Bourgeois, PharmD:Yes, thank you. My name is Jennifer Bourgeois. I am in McKinney, Texas, where I practice community pharmacy, and have been in this industry for 12 years. I received my bachelor’s of science in Nutrition and Dietetics and went on to get my doctorate of pharmacy. I’m wife to my college sweetheart, mama to 2 girls, and that keeps me very busy outside of pharmacy. Currently, I practice as a clinical pharmacist for my company; I received that promotion earlier this year, and so that has been a fun change for me, where I now get to oversee some of the clinical programs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Drug Topics®: Awesome, Thank you. Tony, I'd like to jump over to you.

Tony Nguyen, RPh: I'm a pharmacy manager at Safeway, a supermarket pharmacy. I graduated from The Ohio State University in 1992 with a chemistry degree, and then went back to pharmacy [school] and graduated in 1996. I worked as national pharmacists [in a hospital] for 4 years before I switched to retail, after I got married and I’ve been in retail since then. I love doing retail, as I found out. I enjoy helping customers and interacting with them. I do immunizations and MTM [medication therapy management] so that my customers continue to be healthy. I love what I do, even though big, crazy time of the pandemic.

Drug Topics®: Great, thank you. And Eric, would you like to wrap it up?

Eric Geyer, PharmD: My name is Eric Geyer. I am the pharmacy director for the Center for Parents and Children up here in Cleveland, Ohio. I oversee 5 pharmacies, our operations, as well as 4 clinical pharmacists and 6 pharmacy residents. I also do my Political Pharmacist podcast, which I think is how some people started to hear about me a little bit with winning the Most Influential Pharmacist award. It's just something I always kind of follow, the political side of pharmacy

I'm also a parent, I have 1 daughter currently. It's been a wild journey, having a kid in the middle of COVID-19 and the pandemic. It's been a fun ride so far..

Drug Topics®: It sounds like you all keep very, very busy, in addition to working as a pharmacist. We appreciate everything it is that you guys do.

What does it mean to each of you to be recognized by your communities as winners of the SingleCare Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards this year?

Nguyen: I feel very honored, very humbled by this national award, and also thankful that my customers nominated me. I guess my customers appreciate my service to them, and that's why they nominated me. I'm very grateful for that.

I wish I could make this a team award, because my partner of 12 years does the same thing to keep this pharmacy growing and running smoothing. We both do a very good job in helping our customers.

Geyer: Yeah, I think it's a real honor, and like Tony said, personally humbling. For the past 2 years, I've kind of really leaned into trying to help be a voice for professional pharmacy, and even when my patients come in—when I was working on the retail side last year—fully educating them on issues, when they were saying, “Why is my copay, so high?” I kind of explained to them some of the issues that are going on with drug pricing and some of the other issues and middlemen, and stuff like that.

It's kind of nice just to be recognized, because you spend all this time doing stuff behind the scenes, and you put in, like Tony said, so many hours—and he's been a pharmacist longer than I have—and to finally be recognized for something like that just feels good and kind of lets you know you're doing the right thing, that people are recognizing it.

And like Tony said, this really was a team award, too. I started a really large COVID-19 Facebook group, I couldn’t do that without some of the admins on that group, or my team at the center who really help me push our profession forward and take care of our patients. It’s a little bit of a different setting than what Tony’s in and what Jennifer’s in, but just in a way that really helps take of the patients and do what’s best for them. No one ever wins this award alone when doing something like this.

Bourgeois: Yeah, I agree with Tony and Eric, that is such an honor to be recognized. I think being in health care sometimes seems thankless; we put in so many hours—that we're happy to do—but just to be recognized by the people that we're actually showing up for means the most, because that's really why we're all there: to take care of our people, our patients. So that feels good.

And I think it also is just confirmation that we are serving where we're best fit. You know, I think [for] so many of us here that have been recognized for going above and beyond to provide great service in different areas, I think it's just really an affirmation that we're in alignment with our gifts and just serving where we can make the biggest impact.

Drug Topics®: Absolutely, it definitely sounds like that. And I guess this next question kind of dovetails off of that. I think the impacts that community pharmacies—just pharmacists in general have had—during the COVID-19 pandemic has been incredible. I know I've relied on my own my own pharmacist for vaccinations and all that kind of stuff. But I know that the industry and the profession as a whole has faced a lot of challenges. Does anyone want to share the biggest professional challenge that you faced in the past year?

Geyer: Yeah, you know, for me, there was a big transition. I went from working retail at a big chain, similar to what Tony is, to now being a director at a federally qualified health center. They're very different roles, right?

It's really easy to manage somebody when you're there seeing them every day for 40 hours a week. But when you have to step away and kind of make some more executive, higher-level decisions—then figure out how to implement it and things like that—and then think about all the issues of the pandemic… Things like, I want to do this virtually [and] how do I keep us safe distance, has really been a pretty interesting challenge. And I have to give to my team a shout-out because now that I’m a step removed, a lot of times I’ll dream up an idea, I’ll throw it at them, and they’ll be like, “That’s not gonna work.” And I’ll be like, “Well why not?” and we have to go back and forth. It’s a little bit of a different way [of working] that I’m not always used to coming from more of a retail community setting.

It's also very rewarding, because you can actually go and dream up an idea and then see it as finished product at the same time, with a lot of help from your team as well.

Nguyen: The biggest challenge for me is trying to keep up with the demand of COVID-19 immunizations. So many people want to get shots, and I’m just so glad that they are getting immunized. But right now, we’re just short technician help, and we’re really busy trying to get people immunized. It feels great that they're coming in, [it’s] just the paperwork and billing process that’s tedious. That's the biggest challenge.

Bourgeois: I’ll jump in. So, for what I've seen in my practice setting—also in community—I transitioned into the clinical role right as the COVID-19 vaccine became available. And so, I was really able to see it both sides, from more of the managerial perspective and then also from the staffing side.

I think it's been exciting for us in community pharmacy to be able to have such an instrumental role in the availability of the vaccine for our communities. I think we would all agree that that has been a really great part for us and how we can serve our community. But also, just like Tony said, the demands on community pharmacy right now are at an all-time high. Our roles and our responsibilities are just really… the list is getting longer. And unfortunately, our staffing—we're short of staff. And so that has really caused some challenges for us in the community setting.

But I do think, just for me, I try to focus on those stories of the patients who are receiving the vaccine, and just seeing how happy and excited that makes them that they can get back to their life. We have so many elderly patients in our community that we serve, and I can't tell you the countless number of stories that these people come in [with]; they get their vaccine and they're just joyful. I've seen people tear up and cry, because they feel like they can actually see their grandkids again, they can go back to church, whatever their community involvement looks like. That has helped me have those moments, [and] get through those challenging moments. So that's a great part [of how] that we can serve our communities right now.

Drug Topics®: Sure, absolutely. I feel a little emotional hearing you talk about that, you know, having gone through the vaccination process in my own personal life. But you guys see it all day, every day—it's 1 person, multiplied.

I would like to talk a little bit more about your customers and your community and your patients, because so much of pharmacy is customer service. If anyone has a customer story that had a really profound impact on them, we would love to hear it.

Bourgeois: Yes, I have a few. But I think the one that stands out the most to me is [from] when I was probably 2 years into practice. I was very new to community pharmacy at the time.

I had a gentleman who approached me at the counter asking a lot of questions about medications. Through the conversation, I learned that he was terminally ill with cancer and was really just looking for a place where he could trust his pharmacist and really build a relationship so that we could have conversations about his medication. I think he was really just looking for someone with compassion and empathy, who really could see his story and learn a little bit about him and then provide that education back.

It was obvious that he had had some bad experiences. And so, he and I really built a relationship over several months. And, unfortunately, he passed away. And at the end of his life, I got to know his parents, because with terminal cancer, obviously, he couldn't come in, so I built a relationship with them. And they also became customers at the pharmacy.

The next year, they came in and we talked about the holiday; it was November and they asked what I was doing. Unfortunately, I live 5 hours away from my family and my husband worked nights then and I was in the retail space, so that meant I was going to be working a lot during the holidays. I didn't have plans for Thanksgiving, and so they invited me to their home for Thanksgiving. It was just a really sweet relationship that started at the pharmacy counter but just transitioned to be something so much more.

I went and had Thanksgiving with this couple at their home. We continue to be friends, they've been great mentors to my husband and I through our marriage, and they love on my girls still. It’s just a really fun story that I think started… I guess I could have not been that person for him, and I would have missed out on so much. And just to be able to hear the impact from his parents—[to hear] the story from his parents about the impact that it had on him and on them, that just means so much.

Drug Topics®: That's incredible; I thought it was emotional before, but oh man, you really got me right in the heart there. That's incredible, and I'm sure that it means a lot to his family that you're still in touch.

Nguyen: I have one customer I’ve known since I [started at] Safeway. She's a senior, and she has no transportation; she’s living on a budget so sometimes I would deliver medications to her, or pay for her medications. When she shops at the store, she waits for me to close and I’ll drive her home. I also sometimes give her shots at her home to help her out, with the transportation limitation I can help her out by going to her house. And even now, once a month, I will take her to Walmart so she can do all of shopping at one time; she appreciates that a lot.

She gave me a nickname, Tony the Iron Man—that’s a little funny.

One year, she lost her cat, her only companion. And I was able to find her a new kitten who she loves very much. And she appreciates that a lot as well. So, it makes me happy that I can be someone that she can depend on in your life.

Geyer: Yeah, so I have a lot of random stories in pharmacy that I could share, but one that really [stands out to me] is I was sitting down to do a medication therapy management with a patient. I was going over his meds and reconciling them, and I said, “Hey, is there you don’t take that’s on here?”

[The patient] actually had hearing loss, so I was trying to be mindful of that. But me having [had] hearing loss as a kid and having a fixed through numerous surgeries, I was always really sensitive to that, and it was a little bit of a connection—I understood when you get frustrated because you couldn’t hear people, I know what that’s like. We had built that little bit of trust from just the random hearing issues we have.

He then told me, “Yeah, you know, occasionally I do go by Norco off the street, because I'm actually addicted to opioids and I can't get in to the treatment. I kind of self-medicate a little bit.” And a lot of pharmacists would be like, well, I gotta report this. But I kind of took this moment of, he’s really just trusting me with his health care. And he's like, “Look, I really want treatment, but I can't get connected.”

So, the next 2 days, I think I spent like 3 hours calling every place on God’s green earth up here trying to get him care for MAT [medication assisted therapy], or in some sort of addiction treatment program. I ended up just calling his insurance like, “Look, this guy wants it, he's afraid to speak out, how can we connect him with it?” Eventually, they got him connected to care. It was a tough situation, because he didn't have a lot of money, he didn't have any transportation, and all the places up here in Ohio are generally pretty full and they’re not really taking new patients. Some are, but it’s just tough trying to work it in to get scheduled, and then with transportation issues… I finally worked with his insurance and was able to kind of get that sorted out and it kind of set him on the right path. He started taking…suboxone for treatment.

And he was really appreciative of that. It helped kind of put him on a “morally correct life” as he called it, because, you know, he didn't have to go out there and buy pills off of the streets, which he knew it was wrong, but he also knew he needed it. So it put him in a really bad spot.

Drug Topics®: That's incredible. I don't want this to trite or anything, just because I’m on a call with you, but those are truly inspiring stories. It's just nice to hear, I think, with everything that's going on in the world and how difficult things have been, that there are still people who care and who want to help and that it matters to you guys. So, thank you for everything that you've been doing.

I think that kind of leads into our next question. I think that pharmacists are considered by many the most accessible health care professional. And for some, pharmacists are the only health care professional that they can see regularly. So how do you work to make a difference in patients’ lives?

Geyer: I’ll go first on this one. We are, by far away, the most accessible health care provider. I think with COVID-19 it’s really highlighted that; we're doing tests now, and immunizations, and they're looking at like, can pharmacies dispense the pills based off test now with the CMS regulations and things like that.

But we're really at the forefront of everything, because they realize that something like 85%, 90% people live within 5 miles of a pharmacy—not always true of hospitals. I think it's just one of those things that people have overlooked for so long, what the importance of being close to health care is. And now, people are realizing we can do this, right? There are pharmacies that, people need them—especially in the case of a pandemic. When the pandemic hit, a lot of providers were closing their offices and were only doing Zoom and things like that; people didn’t always have access to Zoom because of their means or what have you. But pharmacists were always open, we were carved out of every exception to be open and be accessible, right?

And that is part of what’s causing the burnout now, like Jennifer was saying. It’s the staffing issues at major chains. Which is why…when people come in, when I was previously in retail and community, and they're mad, I would say, “Hey, you know, our staffing is short, and we’re actually staffed to budget. And this is what it looks like.” This is why we need payment reform. And most of those folks have never heard of…what a PBM is. I was trying to make sure they understood what some of that is, by explaining like hey, maybe there's a way to get this cheaper. I tried to just show them how the sausage is made.

Once they started seeing that, they started taking an active role in their own health care, because now they understand the complexity of it, which is not easy to explain—especially with the limited time we have in spaces like community pharmacy. But then, it lets you speak to bigger topics like too, of like, “Hey, we recognize this provider in Ohio, but not with Medicare, so I can't do this certain service for you," or I can't do this certain thing for you.” I have the knowledge and I have the skills, I just need them to lift the restrictions.

That's one of those things that I thought with the pandemic hitting was a huge call out for pharmacists and for our profession, and CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] as well, to really kind of engage us and all we know, since we know that there are going to be provider shortages for the next decade, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There's actually a net negative growth in pharmacist jobs…But you know, I think people are seeing it now: Pharmacists can do this, why the heck can’t we let them.

Drug Topics®: Anyone else want to jump in?

Nguyen: To make a difference in the customers lives, I…listen to them first, and then give them options to that they feel in control. I want them to feel not hopeless, you know? I also give them recommendations or advice in in to help them in their decisions. That’s what I would do.

Bourgeois: Seventy percent of Americans take at least 1 prescription medication. I think that just shows the availability for us to have those relationships with millions of Americans. And just like Eric said, we are very accessible in our positioning because pharmacies are… Usually people are live within about 5 miles of a pharmacy. So [we have], I think, just those 2 things in common—that we are accessible, and that so many people are visiting us, that we can build those relationships with people and build that trust, and that we can have an impact on their life, whatever that looks like. Whether that be immunizations, testing, medications, over the counter supplements…but just that we can build those relationships with our patients.

Drug Topics®: You guys are making this very easy for me, because this leads right into my next question. I really want to leave our audience with some actionable advice. I think you all kind of touched on that a little bit in your responses, but given everything we've discussed and the staffing shortages in the pandemic… I didn't realize, Eric, that there was a projected 10-year shortage of health care professionals. That's not great; it’s definitely something that we need to work through.

But given all of that, what is the best piece of wisdom that you can leave with our audience, that you have for practicing pharmacists today?

Geyer: I think the biggest thing pharmacists can do is speak up. We've seen numerous times, especially in my state of Ohio, where a pharmacist speaking up helped when the state was overpaying for medications through the Medicaid system. We've seen where led to access to care for people in rural and urban areas who lack transportation.

I think the biggest thing is speaking up. I know sometimes people are afraid to push the limits. It's just not the personality a pharmacist; we like guidelines, we like things that fit in the little box, all nice and neat and very black and white. But we need to start dabbing more, not just in the gray, but in that middle ground and being advocates. We've even seen some pharmacists in Congress recently, and I’m just a little hopeful for some of the fixes we want to see. Just taking a more active approach… I found that a lot of times when I speak up, I’ll be in a room, and it will be all medical doctors, nurses, and then there’s no pharmacists—I'm the only one there. And that's happened with vaccine record programs, even before COVID-19; no one realized that pharmacies weren’t accessing them. So, I was like, “Hey, we probably give as many, if not more, than you guys do, even with flu and everything every year.”…It's just one of those things, that every time I found when I spoke up on something that I knew a little bit about, it opened the floodgates on a lot of stuff. That’s kind of how I've just been able to get into so many different avenues with this.

Sometimes you're sitting there talking, and you don't realize the person next to you could be your state representative, or your congressman, or things like that. Going to those events… people don't realize that you can talk to someone like that. And you probably know more than they do in some of those cases; you might not, but you are you're the subject matter expert. Speak up, be heard. They’ll usually listen to you, especially if you’re speaking on something you’re a professional in.

Nguyen: Being a retail pharmacist, I believe that customers like to have a personal connection with their pharmacist. I do this by creating conversation with them that can relate to, like their children, or their work, or school, or sports, or passion. And I do this when giving them immunizations [and] when I counsel them on their medications. I think they're happy after they leave, feeling that I took an interest in our lives.

Bourgeois: I'll piggyback on what Tony said: I just want to challenge the community pharmacists out there to find ways to go above and beyond in the service that you provide every day. Maybe that looks like a conversation with your patient, getting to know them. Maybe that means stepping out from behind the counter to assist with an over-the-counter selection, Whatever that looks like, I think that that is such an opportunity, because people want great service. And unfortunately, in today's world, it's really hard to find great service. I think that is one way that you, as a community pharmacist, can really set yourself apart and grow your business. People are going to return if you give great service, and if you are interested in them—genuinely interested in them—and build those relationships, they're going to be loyal and they're going to come back. It's a way for you to grow your business, but also make an impact in the community.

Drug Topics®: Thank you so much. I want to thank each of you—Jennifer, Eric, and Tony—for taking the time out of your day to do this. Like I said, it sounds like you're all very busy really taking care of your patients and your communities. And I wanted to also thank SingleCare for recognizing these and the many other outstanding professionals in the pharmacy field this year.

Click here to learn more about the SingleCare 2021 Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards.

Did you miss the rest of our SingleCare 2021 Best of the Best Pharmacy Awards coverage? Check out our interviews with Best Pharmacist winner Jennifer Bourgeois, PharmD, Best Up-and-Coming Pharmacist winner Sidrah Alam, and Above and Beyond Award winner Tony Nguyen, RPh, in our video gallery.