Pharmacy Schools Must Take Intentional Steps to Diversify and Prepare Their Students

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Illustration of a medical cross with different people of varying ethnicities sitting and leaning against it.
Lakesha-Butler, PharmD
Lakesha Butler, PharmD

The low representation of minority students in schools and colleges of pharmacy, which ultimately results in the low representation of minority faculty, has been a consistent reality for years. Many schools have taken strides to address this problem by initiating programs, some have created school-wide committees, and a select few have diversity and inclusion administrators specifically for their pharmacy program.

Certainly, where each school is on its diversity and inclusion journey can depend on a variety of factors, including whether it is a current priority of the institution, whether able and willing champions exist to lead these efforts, and whether the administration is committed to this work.

According to the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), the pharmacy curriculum must address four key standards, which include diversity-related key elements.— cultural sensitivity, population health, and self-awareness. However, efforts to prepare pharmacy students to provide care to our evolving world cannot start and stop with the curriculum.

The curriculum is just a piece of the puzzle. Efforts to create an inclusive campus environment and diversify the student and faculty bodies are also critical to adequately prepare students. Diverse student bodies lead to measurable improvements in active learning, intellectual stimulation, cultural competence, and citizenship skills. Admissions policies that value social diversity, rigor of prior academic coursework, and entrance examination scores yield a student body that may be better prepared to enter a global economy and an increasingly multicultural society.

To foster diversity and inclusion, schools of pharmacy must first determine whether these are core values of their overall institution. Is it stated in your institutional documents? Is it a subtle or obvious priority? If diversity and inclusion are a part of your university’s core values, how does your administration show a commitment to this work? How does your school promote these values, and what message does it send? Whether your institution does or does not value diversity provides guidance on where you should begin as well as focus your efforts.

Most schools of pharmacy are part of a larger university that may have an institution-wide diversity and inclusion office or council. However, ideally these efforts should be specific to the intricate fabric of the pharmacy school as well. In addition to having a university-wide Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, a chief diversity officer, and a diversity council composed of faculty, staff, students, and administrators — including pharmacy representation — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) School of Pharmacy (SOP) has its own diversity and inclusion committee and recently appointed an administrative diversity coordinator. Because the needs of the SOP differ from those of the overall institution, they should be addressed both in collaboration with and separate from the university.

Pharmacy schools can take these steps and more to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion and promote visible and continuous improvement.

First, ensure that diversity and inclusion are part not only of your university’s stated mission, vision, and core values, but also those of your school. This affirms that it is a part of who you are as an institution. Second, create a goal related to these efforts in the pharmacy school’s overall strategic plan. Whether you have begun work in this area or not, there is always room for growth, and making diversity and inclusion part of your future plans affirms them as a priority.

At SIUE, the SOP’s five-year strategic plan was developed with input from all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, students, alumni, and pharmacy community leaders. One of the plan’s six goals is to “cultivate diversity and inclusiveness,” which includes addressing the curriculum, establishing a standing committee, and developing a diversity strategic plan.

The third step is to establish a diversity committee within your school composed of faculty, staff, and students who have an interest in this work. This committee can determine and address the needs of the school in collaboration with other committees and pertinent administrative offices. These individuals become your hands and feet, committing the time and effort needed to do this work. At a minimum, all pharmacy schools should have a standing committee.

In continuing your school’s commitment to this work, the fourth step is to develop a school diversity strategic plan. This will provide specific goals and strategies to cultivate diversity and inclusiveness and holds you accountable for measurable outcomes. It can provide greater affirmation of the school’s commitment not only in thought, but also through action and the allocation of resources. The standing committee can take the lead on developing and accomplishing the goals; however, it is important that faculty and staff vote on and approve the proposed plan, as this is the typical procedure for institutional strategic plans.

The fifth step, which may take place at the same time as or prior to the previous one, is to create a diversity administrator position in the pharmacy school.  This could be an appointed or a hired position. It may be beneficial to select someone who has been a leader in this area at your school. Having a diversity administrator who reports to senior leadership validates your school’s commitment to this work, which in turn will influence all constituents to make it a priority. This person should serve as the leader for strategy, policy, and practice related to fostering diversity and a climate of inclusion within the school.

These suggested steps are presented in a logical order but may be implemented as suitable for your institution. To address the issue of low minority representation in the pharmacy field and prepare pharmacy students for the diverse world they will encounter requires intentional efforts to facilitate tangible and sustainable results.

Lakesha Butler, PharmD, is a clinical associate professor of pharmacy practice and coordinator of diversity and inclusion at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Pharmacy.