Pamela Schweitzer couldn’t believe it when she got a phone call last month letting her know that she was this year’s recipient of the Distinguished Federal Pharmacist Award. It’s the highest honor given annually by the American Pharmacists Association to recognize a pharmacist who has distinguished the profession by contributing to a significant improvement in the health of a population.
Awards aren’t common in her field. Federal pharmacists include those in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Public Health Service and Department of Veteran Affairs.
That she will be juggling her two-day trip to Orlando, Fla., to receive the award in March around coursework to complete her Executive Master of Health Administration (EMHA) degree at the USC Price School of Public Policy illustrates the caliber of working professionals the program attracts.
“This is a quite an honor,” Schweitzer said. “It’s not something a person aspires to, considering there are thousands of federal pharmacists and only one person is selected.”
Schweitzer received the award in part for a partnership project she led while on assignment to the Veteran’s Administration (VA). Beginning in 2012, she coordinated all aspects of an effort to transfer the Indian Health Service prescription refill workload to the VA Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy. By February of this year, she had completed the setup of 77 Indian Health pharmacies. At that time more than 250,000 prescriptions had been transferred to and filled by the VA.
“The best part is to have made a lasting impact for the Indian Health population by providing an alternative method for patients to obtain medication refills, improving access to care and adherence,” Schweitzer said. “It also made a big difference in pharmacy practice because the transfer of workload allows for the expansion of pharmacist clinical activities.”
Schweitzer also serves as a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, meaning she is always ready to be called upon to contribute her expertise to national emergencies and public health crises. She was deployed to Baton Rouge, La., shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck and worked with the Red Cross to assess shelters and make sure they had vaccines and supplies.
Schweitzer, 54, has two children currently attending college, but decided she wasn’t done learning herself. She entered the EMHA program last year, having already earned a doctor of pharmacy from the University of California, San Francisco, and bringing along decades of professional experience. Schweitzer hopes the program will lead to opportunities to make an impact in the bigger picture of health policy, regulation and implementation at a national level.
“I think that she really is one of the new generation of pharmacist leaders,” said Mike Nichol, director of graduate programs in health at USC Price, who was Schweitzer’s instructor for a course on leadership. “She’s demonstrated a capacity for executive opportunities as she moves forward in her career. I think the recognition of talent she received through this kind of national award is a testament of her contribution to the field. Her involvement in the EMHA program speaks volumes about her desire to lead.”
The EMHA program at USC Price uses a blended online and on-campus format, which is designed to accommodate the demanding schedules of senior practitioners such as Schweitzer.
Schweitzer came to USC last fall to meet with her fellow students and professors at the very beginning of the two-year program and will return to campus before graduating in May — the EMHA’s two residencies. In between, the classes meet for video chats and break off into teams of two or three to work on projects.
“I love my cohort,” said Schweitzer, who grew up in Southern California. “All of us are moving along together. I learn so much just from them and their experiences. I have no doubt that every person in our cohort will be making a positive impact on health care in the U.S.”
When Schweitzer started a new job in February working at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Baltimore to help implement the Affordable Care Act, she volunteered to help her division create a mission statement — putting her EMHA lessons to use.
During an EMHA course, the class discussed the importance of staff being a part of developing a mission statement. Schweitzer — in addition to facilitating the development of the mission statement and goals at her new workplace — involved her co-workers in creating a video of the mission statement.
Each person contributed in some way in its development. And by going through the taping sessions, they were able to learn the mission statement and have a good time in the process, Schweitzer explained.
“For me, the classes aren’t just about getting a grade or a degree,” she said. “I’m trying to learn how to apply these concepts to what I’m doing in my daily job. We’re lucky because the professors really care about us and are passionate about their respective topics. I’ve found the EMHA to be a great fit.”