A National Imperative: Increasing the Number of Minority Pharmacists to Improve Patient Outcomes

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ButlerAccording to Forbes’ list of the best jobs in healthcare for 2015, pharmacists are No. 1. Pharmacists are highly respected, they are well paid, and their role continues to evolve, as evidenced by their current prescriptive authority in some states and a soon-to-come insurance provider recognition.

In addition, more and more students are considering careers in pharmacy. To meet the demands of the aging population, and the nation’s overall population increase, the number of pharmacy schools has greatly increased over the last five years to produce more pharmacists. As of July 2015, there were 135 schools and colleges of pharmacy in the U.S. — an increase from 72 in 1987 — and collectively they graduated more than 10,000 students per year.

The increase in pharmacy schools and the subsequent increase in pharmacy students across the U.S. is encouraging. The gender shift — nearly 50 percent of pharmacy students are now female — is also noteworthy considering that pharmacy has historically been a male-dominated healthcare field. However, the racial and ethnic makeup of pharmacy students and graduates has not changed much.

The low representation of minority students in schools and colleges of pharmacy has been a consistent reality for years despite the topic being a focus of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) for more than 15 years. During that time, the percentage of minorities enrolled in pharmacy school has increased only slightly. The concern over inadequate minority student enrollment in pharmacy schools has become a pressing topic due to the changing demographics of the country and the impact more minority pharmacists can have on the health status of Americans.

It is projected that by the year 2050, minorities will comprise 50 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, according to 2014 AACP student data, only 12.4 percent of pharmacy students across the U.S. are underrepresented minorities; specifically, 7.3 percent are African American, and 4.5 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Furthermore, research shows that minority healthcare professionals are more likely to practice in medically underserved areas where many minority patients reside, which results in improved access to healthcare for these populations.

Additionally, minority patient ratings are higher when they are served by providers who are racially and ethnically similar to them. Therefore, the lack of current and future minority pharmacists needed to serve the growing minority population is and will continue to have a profound impact on the health and well-being of our nation. Diversifying students enrolled in pharmacy schools has to be a priority that is carried out at each school and college of pharmacy.

So why is the number of underrepresented minorities so low in pharmacy schools? Are minority students aware of the benefits of a career in pharmacy? Are schools of pharmacy intentional about recruiting more diverse students? Is diversification of students a priority of U.S. schools and colleges of pharmacy?

At Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) School of Pharmacy, faculty, staff, and administrators have been working to address the issue.

Located in the Midwest, SIUE’s minority student enrollment has been lagging; in 2013, minority students represented approximately 6 percent of the total pharmacy student population. This figure has been low since the school opened its doors in 2005. Some may think that this is to be expected in the Midwest. However, Illinois has a large minority population — 15.1 percent African American and 12.3 percent Hispanic — and most of the school’s students come from Illinois. Also, the SIUE campus is approximately 20 miles from the city of St. Louis, Mo., whose population is almost 50 percent African American. There is no lack of minority students in the surrounding area.

Recognizing the value in increasing the diversity of the pharmacy school student body, and considering the low number of minority students who are academically prepared for and apply to the PharmD program, SIUE developed the Healthcare Diversity Summer Camp.

The summer camp is a one-week, residential experience that exposes underrepresented minority high school students to college life and SIUE’s schools of pharmacy, nursing, and dental medicine. Students stay in campus housing for the week and are mentored by current minority pharmacy, nursing, and dental school students. The students spend the first day touring the campus, learning about student resources available at the university. Then they are exposed to hands-on activities and provided admission information and tips for each of the healthcare programs at SIUE. On the final day of camp, students participate in an ACT preparatory course and a closing ceremony.

The goal of the camp is to inspire these students and expose them to healthcare fields while equipping them with the knowledge and confidence needed to pursue a professional education and a healthcare career. As a result of the camp, approximately half of the participants have enrolled in a pre-pharmacy, pre-medicine, or nursing program, and one-third of the participants have enrolled in pre-pharmacy or are current pharmacy students at SIUE. Since the Healthcare Diversity Summer Camp launched in 2011, the School of Pharmacy has seen a 2 percent increase in the number of underrepresented minority students enrolled.

Programs like this provide an example of how schools and colleges of pharmacy can address low minority representation in their student body and in the profession at large.●

Lakesha Butler, PharmD, BCPS, is a clinical associate professor of pharmacy practice and chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Pharmacy Committee at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) School of Pharmacy. She is also the coordinator of the university’s Healthcare Diversity Summer Camp. SIUE is a 2014 and 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient.