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A Day in the Life of an Ambulatory Care Clinical Pharmacist

Day in the Life of an Ambulatory Care Pharmacist

We’re pleased to introduce you to Laura Challen, PharmD, MBA, BCPS, BCACP! 

She’s an assistant professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy, as well as a clinical pharmacist at Mercy JFK Clinic at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. 

Read on to learn more about how Dr. Challen got involved in the pharmacy industry, what a typical day in her life as both an ambulatory care pharmacist and an assistant professor looks like, and her advice for pharmacy students like you!

Why pharmacy?

In high school, I took a career aptitude test and pharmacy came back as one of my top three career recommendations. At the time, I didn’t know much about the industry, so I began doing research.

My research taught me that a career in pharmacy would be a great opportunity to help people without being exposed to much “blood and guts.” I was thrilled by the idea that my positive impact on patients could be extremely far reaching—after all, nearly everyone will need a prescription at some point in their lives.

I was also drawn to the work/life balance that a career in pharmacy could offer, as well as the fact that pharmacy was a profession that would allow me to find success in virtually any city in the nation.

What type of pharmacist are you?

I am an ambulatory care clinical pharmacist. I work in an outpatient clinic and I assist with chronic disease state management.

My work is focused on helping the physicians at our clinic manage medications for patients with long-term diseases. I spend my time meeting one-on-one with patients to discuss and adjust their chronic medications in between their routine doctor appointments.

My practice site is at a health care clinic for the uninsured and under-insured. At the clinic, I’m part of a larger health care team that includes internal medicine physicians, dietitians, and social workers. We all work in tandem to help achieve successful health outcomes for our patients.

I spend half of my time working at the clinic and the other half educating the next generation of pharmacists as a faculty member at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. 

What makes your career path unique?

I think what has made my path unique is my journey to landing a dual role as an ambulatory care pharmacist and a pharmacy professor. 

While I was in pharmacy school at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy, I found that I was really interested in certain disease states, namely diabetes. I was also very interested in getting to know my patients long-term.

In my last year of pharmacy school, I did a rotation in a hospital and I found myself asking my mentors so many questions about the families we were treating. I wanted to know what they were going to do after they were discharged and what would happen when they came for follow-up visits. I wanted to build relationships with those patients, learn about them and the communities where they lived, and see the long-term results of the care they were receiving. That’s when I realized I wanted to serve in an outpatient setting.

After pharmacy school, I completed a pharmacy practice residency in Boston that was specialized for ambulatory care. That residency helped me obtain a job at a clinic in Houston where I specialized in diabetes and anti-coagulation management. I was in Houston for five years before moving to St. Louis. 

I was drawn to my position at St. Louis College of Pharmacy because it offered the opportunity for me to continue pursuing my passion for clinical pharmacy, while also taking on a new role that would allow me to positively influence a future generation of pharmacists.

I’ve found that teaching students is so incredibly rewarding. Some have reached out to me months, or even years, later to thank me for helping them find their career path. I know not everyone is going to pursue my exact path, but I love having the chance to help students find the path that makes the most sense for them!

What do you love most about your job?

As a healthcare provider, I love being part of a patient’s journey to improve their health. As a professor, I love watching the “aha!” moment that happens when students put the textbook information they’ve learned to use and it all clicks for them in a real-world, patient care setting.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

My mornings are typically spent in the clinic. I get to work at 8 a.m. when the clinic opens. Our patient care team starts the day with a 10-minute huddle to get up to speed on what’s happening, and then we begin seeing patients. 

Throughout the day, we see a variety of patients with numerous long-term and chronic conditions including diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In some cases, we see patients as a team, while in other cases, members of the team will meet with patients one-on-one. We also make phone calls to patients.

When I’m at the clinic, I also have the pleasure of working with students on rotations. Each year, I have 14 students who spend 5 weeks at my site becoming fully immersed in the clinic setting. Many of these students go on to do residencies after graduating pharmacy school.

I spend most of my afternoons at the college. On any given day, I can be found conducting or writing lectures and handling various aspects of course coordination, including creating and editing test questions and grading exams. I’m also involved in a few research projects, so a portion of my time on campus is spent collecting and analyzing data and writing manuscripts for publication.

Describe the most rewarding day of your career.

During my career, I’ve been fortunate to have many rewarding days on the job. 

One recent instance that stands out in my mind involved a patient that made a 180-degree turn with his health. He came to the clinic in very poor overall health. After meeting with my team and seeing the results of the various lab tests we’d performed, he vowed to turn his health around. In fact, I recall him sitting in my office and throwing his cigarettes away in my trash can! He promised that he’d never smoke again, and he meant it.

In addition to giving up smoking, he lost a lot of weight. Over time, his mood improved and so did his health. His story is really rewarding because he said he was motivated to make these positive changes because of our team. 

There have also been times when my clinic team has been able to catch errors, which has prevented a patient from getting hurt. We’ve also frequently served patients in urgent situations. In many cases, we’ve had patients call and reach out for help, and we’ve been able to provide them with the exact care they needed at the exact moment they need it. That’s a very rewarding feeling!

Describe the most challenging day of your career.

As a health care provider, it can be challenging when you know what lifestyle changes a patient needs to make, but they just aren’t open to making those changes. Too often, I’ve seen patients continue to smoke when they need to quit and gain weight when they need to lose weight. In these cases, I want to be able to provide additional help outside my clinic setting, but I can’t. That can be frustrating. 

In addition, the clinic I work in serves low-income individuals and the uninsured and under-insured. It can be very hard at times to see the social situations our patients experience. Some are homeless, while others struggle because they don’t have enough resources. I work with a great team that helps these individuals out tremendously, but sometimes it feels like we can’t help enough.

What most attracted you to pharmacy over other health care professions?

I was ultimately drawn to pharmacy because I saw it as the perfect opportunity to work in health care and make a positive impact on patients. This is a very rewarding profession that offers great work/life balance, financial stability, and endless opportunities to grow and succeed.

What advice would you give a student entering pharmacy school?

My biggest piece of advice would be for students to commit to setting aside time to study little by little, rather than cramming right before an exam. There is a lot of information for pharmacy students to learn, and it’s all information that they will eventually apply in the real-world while caring for patients. Because they will be using this information every day, it’s critical for students to commit this information to their long-term memory, and the only way to do that is to study and learn gradually.

I also can’t stress enough the importance of working or shadowing in various pharmacy settings while in pharmacy school. When I was a student, I worked as a technician in a community pharmacy. I liked the work I was doing, but I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do for my whole life. These experiences offer the chance for students to explore different paths in pharmacy and figure out which path is right for them. I encourage students to use whatever connections they have to get their foot in the door while still in school.

What do you wish someone told you (in high school or college) as it pertains to your career?

One thing I think is valuable to know is how many career options there are within the pharmacy profession. I’m very passionate about what I’m currently doing, but I know now that there are other career paths within pharmacy that may have also been a good fit for me.

There are long-term care pharmacists that go to nursing homes. There’s oncology, pediatrics, inpatient/outpatient care, nuclear pharmacy, insurance, and so much more. I wish someone would have informed me about all of these options when I was a student. 

The sky’s the limit within the pharmacy industry, but pharmacists aren’t always informed about that until later on in our careers.

What do you believe is the biggest misconception about the field of pharmacy?

I think the general community sometimes thinks pharmacists only count pills. Many times, my friends and my own patients have difficulty understanding that I’m a member of a larger patient care team, and that my role is more than simply filling medications prescribed by a doctor.

I often must explain that I’m a pharmacist who works with the doctor, and that I’m responsible for making recommendations on what medications the doctor should prescribe, which includes double-checking for drug interactions and ensuring that medications are dosed appropriately.

I believe we’re making some headway in helping the public to understand our role as pharmacists, but there are still a lot of misconceptions out there that we need to overcome.

If you’re interested in learning more about careers like Dr. Challen’s in ambulatory care pharmacy or the many other career options available in the industry, visit our Career Paths page.

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