Cultivating Lifelong Professional Advocacy in Student Pharmacists

By: James Ferrell, Student Pharmacist; Jaclyn Boyle, PharmD

One may argue there has never been a more compelling time to advocate for our profession. A recent New York Times article cited growing workplace concerns for pharmacists. State boards have urged pharmacists to advocate for themselves and their patients, but the article identifies that pharmacists are reluctant for fear of retaliation or job security. How could inaction change the landscape of pharmacy? We argue our profession’s future is at risk should professional advocacy not be incorporated into pharmacists’ core responsibilities. How can educators build upon our current curricula and identify students that display an aptitude for professional advocacy skills?

The Center for the Advancement of Pharmacy Education (CAPE) outcome related to advocacy is focused on patient advocacy. While serving patients’ needs and advocating on their behalf are cornerstones of  patient care, we must also develop professional advocacy skills. Students’ abilities to interact with lawmakers and other stakeholders both during and after their academic careers can have profound effects on our profession in the long-term. Colleges and universities have used different approaches to teach and evaluate this advocacy outcome. One study surveyed all U.S. schools/colleges of pharmacy to identify best practices for advocacy and leadership within pharmacy education.1 Common advocacy efforts included facilitating participation in Legislative Day events, encouraging community outreach, and linking didactic and co-curricular activities with student organization efforts. Another study described a two-day program in Washington D.C. that  trained student pharmacists to be effective pharmacy advocates.2 The experience expanded  students’ perspectives on legislative activity while encouraging leadership, collaboration, and communication with legislators. These studies suggest the attempts to increase professional advocacy in formal pharmacy education are voluntary or supplemental in nature. Students may wonder why is it essential that faculty and student pharmacists participate in professional advocacy? 

  • Ensure job security. If we do not advocate for ourselves, it is likely no one will do it for us. While there is concern with the job market, through legislative change, we could focus our efforts on strategies that create new positions and niches in pharmacy.
  • Expand the pharmacist’s role within interprofessional care teams. Pharmacists are likely the most underutilized healthcare professional relative to their level of educational training. To effectively expand current scopes of practice, pharmacists should evaluate legislation that prevents optimal clinical practice.
  • Advance healthcare changes that impact our profession. While not all legislation will be pharmacy-specific, many healthcare bills may affect the profession. Association with professional organizations, personal connection with allied legislators, and continued efforts to expand scopes of practice provides future opportunities for all pharmacists.
  • Capitalize on the momentum of legislative change. It may be difficult to ascertain how to influence change within the political system. Legislative wins create momentum and stir excitement within our profession, but further efforts should be made to drive forward additional progress and grow pharmacy’s impact on general public perception. 
  • Cultivate professional obligation. We believe to create a better future for the pharmacists who follow us, it is imperative that at some level, all pharmacists contribute towards advocacy efforts.

By participating in professional advocacy, students can further develop communication skills and political awareness. Conversion of ‘pharmacy speak’ to a message that is understandable to members of the lay public is a foundational skill all student pharmacists should possess upon graduation. Legislators and their aides rely on pharmacists who can communicate advocacy messages well. Refined, persuasive commentary requires a level of self and social awareness that further drives student growth. 

Identification of students that have an interest in advocacy is a key starting point. Robinson et al. collected data designed to define citizen engagement (Table 1).3 Use of similar tools could be incorporated into pharmacy curricula to advance advocacy initiatives early in students’ academic and professional development. Self-assessment and progressive student engagement could be developed through progressive didactic coursework.   

Table 1. Established Characteristics of Engaged Citizens.3 

Community focused
Consensus builder
Demonstrates professionalism
Strong Communicator
Strong interprofessional skills

To accomplish the goals of professional advocacy, a portion of pharmacy curricula should further develop the skills outlined in Table 1 and should begin early in the curriculum. Because advocacy skills are best learned by active participation, experiential opportunities will aid in the development of students as engaged citizens.  Most advocacy-related coursework is elective and not a required component of pharmacy curricula. Further, most curricular efforts aim to improve patient advocacy and not professional advocacy. Given the continued evolution of our profession and the critical way that pharmacists interface within interprofessional teams, skills associated with advocacy are more important than ever. If professional advocacy is established a core tenet early in curricular and cocurricular efforts, then students will be more likely to incorporate advocacy into their professional careers.


  1. Ross LA, Janke KK, Boyle CJ, et al.  Preparation of faculty members and students to be citizen leaders and pharmacy advocates. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013;77(10):220.
  2. Adams AJ, Matzke GR, McCall KL. A novel education and training program to enhance student advocacy. Am J Pharm Educ. 2015;79(7):95.
  3. Robinson DC, Easton MR, Ginsburg DB, Marciniak M, Sweeny MA, Lang WG. Demystifying advocacy: moving faculty and students toward citizen engagement: report of the 2015-2016 AACP Standing Committee on Advocacy. Am J Pharm Educ. 2016;80(9):S17.

James Ferrell is a fourth-year student pharmacist at Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Pharmacy. James’ educational scholarship interests include mentoring, student leadership, and curriculum development. He is also interested in facilitating peer scholarships, tutoring, and professional development designed to help strengthen future students of pharmacy. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, physical fitness, and reading. 

Jaclyn Boyle is an Associate Professor of Pharmacy Practice at the Northeast Ohio Medical University College of Pharmacy. Educational scholarship interests include professional development, preparing learners for careers in academia, and evaluating novel teaching and assessment methods. Jaclyn is very active in professional pharmacy organizations. In her free time, Jaclyn enjoys spending time with her family & friends, spinning, and yoga.

Pulses is a scholarly blog supported by Currents in Pharmacy Teaching and Learning

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