More diversity in pharmacy begins with affordable education

In 1837, James McCune Smith became the first Black physician to earn a medical degree, and opened the first Black-owned pharmacy in the United States at 93 West Broadway in New York. Fast forward 183 years, and Black men and women represent only 5.25% of pharmacists in the United States, according to DataUSA. 

According to the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, the high cost of tuition is the top barrier to entry for minority students pursuing their pharmacy degrees. As a step toward closing that gap, Capital Rx recently partnered with Howard University to launch the Dr. James McCune Smith Scholarship fund to support the next generation of pharmacists. 

The endowment represents a natural synergy. Howard University’s College of Pharmacy strives to be a premier college in teaching, learning, research, leadership and service. Likewise, the core principles of innovation, diversity and accessibility are embedded within Capital Rx’s DNA. Working in tandem, we will have the opportunity to raise African American and minority student leaders who have the potential to influence the future of our noble profession.  

Diversity of healthcare practitioners is not just about nominative representation — having more diverse medical teams and practitioners saves lives, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review. As Dayna Bowen Matthew documents in her book “Just Medicine: A Cure for Racial Inequality in American Healthcare,” we lose almost 84,000 lives of color each year due to discrepancies in care, coverage and access that arise from racial and ethnic biases held by physicians, pharmacists, providers and patients themselves. Fostering greater diversity across health care is one way to mitigate the health gap, by integrating more nuanced perspectives on multicultural populations that can lead to better diagnoses and rebuild trust. Black and minority pharmacists are invaluable resources within the communities they serve, helping patients of diverse backgrounds to better understand their specific health needs.

As such, we want to support more Black men and women in pursuing pharmacy careers. While there were approximately 2.6 million Black students enrolled in higher education in fall 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 2,247 PharmCAS applicants self-identified as Black or African American during this past pharmacy admissions cycle. Therefore, the journey toward greater equity in pharmacy is a two-fold strategy: lowering the financial barriers to entry and ensuring greater awareness of health professions as younger students are charting their career paths. To that effect, Capital Rx is developing a mentorship program with underserved communities in New York to inspire more local students with interests in STEM to consider careers in pharmacy.

Over the last several years, Howard’s College of Pharmacy has doubled the number of student internships and expanded its clinical and industrial partnerships. In 2018, international student rotation sites were doubled. Currently, the college has 16 international partnerships in 14 different countries benefiting student rotation experiences. Approximately 30% of the college graduates pursue a career in pharmaceutical industry or regulatory affairs, many of whom started out as a fellow. In 2018, the college entered into a one-of-a-kind partnership with the FDA and GlaxoSmithKline, providing a fellowship opportunity in regulatory affairs and policy. The first graduate of the program concluded her training in 2020 and is successfully employed at GSK. With about 36% of the class of 2020 completing a post graduate training program, partnerships between academia and business are critical to ensure the continued pipeline of minority and Black pharmacy graduates into the workforce. 

Long ago, Dr. Smith’s academic journey was made possible through abolitionist benefactors, who funded his travel and education. Similarly, we invite you to join us in accelerating this worthy cause, as it is incumbent upon today’s leaders across business and academia to support the next generation of talented, aspiring pharmacists. 

To donate to the Dr. James McCune Smith Scholarship or for more information, please contact Sara Ganz at [email protected]

Toyin Tofade is dean and tenured professor at Howard University School of Pharmacy.

A.J. Loiacano is the founder and CEO of Capital Rx. 

More Blog Posts In This Series