Sarah Wheeler (center) receives the 2018 NPCC winner's plaque from Amy Oliveira, PharmD, Senior Director of Pharmacist Talent Acquisition at CVS Health (left), and Alyssa Hopsicker, a member of the 2017-18 APhA-ASP Awards Standing Committee.
By Sarah Wheeler, PharmD
Eager to grow as a patient educator, I first competed in the local APhA–ASP Patient Counseling Competition in my second year of pharmacy school. I challenged myself to improve and compete every year after that. At APhA2018 in Nashville, the work of the last 4 years of pharmacy school was rewarded when I won the national APhA–ASP Patient Counseling Competition, which is supported by CVS Health.
Train in the everyday
In preparation for the competition each year, I watched the previous winners’ videos, became familiar with each medication on the competition list, and practiced mock patient interactions. However, the biggest impact on my success was the everyday training I did through work, school, and APhA–ASP patient care events. Since I had never worked in pharmacy, one of my priorities in my first year was to obtain an internship so I could become familiar with the medications we learned in class, and so I could interact with patients on the job.
As I learned more in the classroom, I would take on counseling sessions for new medications, and I picked children’s antibiotics as my pet project, ensuring that I counseled on every antibiotic suspension that left the pharmacy. Throughout pharmacy school, APhA–ASP allowed me to practice my counseling skills and to learn from upperclassmen at free clinics and other patient education events. On IPPE and APPE rotations, I worked with my preceptors to seek out any patient counseling and education opportunities I could find.
The local competition
This year’s local competition felt much different from previous years. In the counseling session, I noticed that instead of making sure I hit all the informational points, my focus had shifted to the patient’s specific needs as I made sure my patient not only understood the purpose and use of this new medication but was able to fit it into her lifestyle. Because of this, I was much more effective than in past competitions and was selected to represent my chapter at APhA2018.
APhA2018 and beyond
To prepare for the national competition, I spoke with my chapter’s previous competitors to get a feel for the format, and I worked with a faculty mentor to review the competition medication list and identify clinical pearls for each medication. APhA2018 was a whirlwind, and it was exhilarating to be with my peers for such an eventful weekend. I came out of the preliminary round counseling session bright red from nerves, thinking that I had done a good job but not good enough to advance. Nonetheless, I watched closely for the results to be announced until I received a message from a friend saying “Congratulations!,” followed by the top 10 list with my name on it. That night, in preparation for the final round the next morning, I watched my video from the preliminary round and revisited the list of medications.
In the final round, I was asked to counsel a father with a fear of needles on his son Blake’s new EpiPen prescription. It felt a little like fate, because like the father picking up the prescription, I am terrified of needles, and when I practiced mock counseling sessions with my husband, he would often say he was picking up for his son Blake (our cat).
It is said that you are your own biggest critic, and I can say in this case, that was definitely true. Even though I had gotten “good vibes” from the case, I came out of the session thinking that I had done well, maybe even well enough to place, but not well enough to win.
It was amazing being recognized onstage as a top 10 competitor that night, and my heart raced as the top three were announced. After I was not called as a runner-up, I resolved that I had not placed but I was proud to have gotten as far as I did. Finally, the winner was announced, and I was shocked and overwhelmed with joy as my name was called!
Since Nashville, I have had time to take in what this achievement means to me. First, I credit my education, experiences, and mentors for my success, as I have come a long way since my first local competition 3 years ago. Second, I have realized that it is not explaining the directions of use or side effects that makes someone a great patient educator, but rather identifying how you can leverage your knowledge to help your patient be successful with their therapy. Last, as pharmacy gains momentum toward provider status, it is essential that student pharmacists embrace their role as patient educators and the art of patient counseling.