Pharmacists Don’t Need to Do It All: Student Pharmacists Are Valuable Team Members

Student pharmacist Mario Gutierrez vaccinates a frontline Legacy Community Health staff worker in Houston, Texas.

“As I was getting ready to administer the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to an extremely nervous individual, I could feel how tense their arm was,” said Mario Gutierrez, a PharmD candidate at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy and pharmacy intern at Legacy Community Health (LCH), a federally qualified health center (FQHC). He was providing care under the guidance of his supervising LCH manager and preceptor Kevin Aloysius, PharmD.

“Instead of immediately injecting them,” Gutierrez said, “we talked about how it was totally normal to be nervous about something new like this.” He asked the patient open-ended questions such as, “What questions or concerns can I address for you?” and then had a brief discussion on the pros, cons, and facts about the vaccine. Gutierrez wanted the patient to be comfortable with getting the vaccine. “I was glad that I was able to make them feel heard and understood to get the vaccine with confidence,” he said.

Although LCH has been a trusted part of the community, “It’s been challenging to convince those who are hesitant about vaccines to receive their doses,” said Gutierrez. He does his best to continue building trust when patients come to get vaccinated. Gutierrez encourages vaccinated patients to talk with others in their community and to be transparent about their experience with the COVID-19 vaccine, hoping these patients will convince more people to get vaccinated.

Beyond a typical student’s level of involvement, Gutierrez has been integral in many parts of the vaccination efforts with LCH. “I have had the opportunity to be involved in storage, handling, and inventory management of vaccines; educating other providers on appropriate drawing techniques; planning, scheduling, and implementing vaccine clinics; immunizing patients; and [providing] post-administration documentation,” said Gutierrez.

The student pharmacist has gained invaluable experience while helping vulnerable Houston communities, including medically underserved, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and minority groups seen at the FQHC. Additionally, LCH’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts helped those with limited access by vaccinating people staying in homeless shelters and hosting vaccine clinics at community centers such as churches.

Practice Pearl

Pharmacists don’t have to do it all. Delegating tasks to pharmacy team members, including student pharmacists, will help to get more people vaccinated.

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Since vaccine supplies arrived days before their first vaccination event, a big challenge LCH staff faced was adapting quickly to new workflows and regulations while meeting the early-adopters’ needs to get the COVID-19 vaccine. “Clinic leadership had to act fast to ensure that all required guidelines were followed and that all information was disseminated to the rest of the teams effectively,” he said.

Gutierrez educated others at LCH on COVID-19 vaccine storage and handling requirements to ensure that safety and efficacy are not compromised. Documentation requirements from the Texas Department of State Health Services also required quick adaptation. “The goal was to vaccinate as many individuals as possible, and we wanted to make the process as seamless and comfortable as possible for the public, while minimizing waste of doses. We needed to be on our toes and diligent in our new workflows,” said Gutierrez. Favorably, he has had a lot of support between departments at the clinic, thereby making efforts more manageable.

“The most rewarding part of it all has been learning what this vaccine means to people. For some it means that they can interact with loved ones with less anxiety, for others it means safe travels, but for many it simply means ‘hope,’” said Gutierrez. “One individual started tearing up and told me, ‘I’m not tearing up because of the vaccine. I’m tearing up because I will be able to see my grandson for the first time, and he will be able to see me smile. Thank you for all that you do.’”

To date, Gutierrez estimates his efforts have helped vaccinate more than 2,000 individuals at vaccination clinics—and, in total, the LCH clinic system has vaccinated more than 20,000 people.