Third-year pharmacy student Brenda Shen decided to get involved with Pharmacy Ambassadors in 2016 because she said she saw the need to help first-generation immigrants navigate the U.S. health care system. Credit: Ris Twigg | Assistant Photo Editor


Emmanuel Osei moved to the U.S. from Ghana in 2009. He understands how challenging it can be to do something as simple as picking up medication or getting blood pressure checked.

His experiences led him to join Ohio State’s Pharmacy Ambassadors — an organization that works to educate immigrants in the Columbus community on pharmacy practices in America — so others would not have to endure the struggles he experienced first-hand.

In Columbus, 7 percent of the city’s population, about 146,200 residents, were born in another country, according to a 2016-17 Global Report from the Columbus Council on World Affairs. At Ohio State, 6,399 international students attend the Columbus campus, according to Autumn 2017 university data.

With such a vast immigrant community both on and off campus, Pharmacy Ambassadors works with various health care resources and institutions to better educate those who need help maneuvering the U.S. pharmacy system.

“The idea of going to a doctor where the pharmacy is not in the doctor’s office and everything is not under the same roof is very foreign to those who are new to America,” pharmacist Ben Michaels said.

Michaels works with Pharmacy Ambassadors at the Kroger pharmacy on Morse Road, about 15 minutes away from Ohio State’s campus. He was assigned to work with two fourth-year students from the College of Pharmacy to create the program in 2013.

After five years of growing in numbers and resources, it now educates at least 200 immigrants per year in Columbus, said Chelsea Pekny, the current director of Pharmacy Ambassadors.

Pekny said the original Pharmacy Ambassador members “saw a need for this service because there was a Kroger pharmacy located in an area with a large population of immigrants. The students noticed that immigrants didn’t really know what to do at the pharmacy, in terms of drop-off and pickup.”

The group created simple handouts to explain things such as reading drug labels and the difference between over-the-counter and prescription drugs. They contacted members of the immigrant community in Columbus and held classes to present the information and answer questions.

Students have expanded the program by connecting Pharmacy Ambassadors to organizations within Columbus. For example, Osei, a doctoral candidate, works directly with PrimaryOne Health in his role.

“We partnered with PrimaryOne because they provide health care to underserved patients, and patients that cannot afford to pay for the treatment,” Osei said.

The connection with PrimaryOne allows the program to provide services such as taking blood pressure and blood glucose screenings along with the pharmacy education provided by the ambassadors.

Pharmacy Ambassadors also works with resettlement organizations such as US Together Inc. and Community Refugee and Immigration Services. These are the groups that first come in contact with people new to the U.S. and are able to enroll them in a Pharmacy Ambassadors class.

Pekny said the resettlement organizations provide clients and translators to help facilitate the program.

The groups provide information on how to navigate pharmacy “within the health care system, but then also to introduce a pharmacist to people so there’s less hesitation to approach a pharmacy or a pharmacy technician that they might see in the store itself,” she said.

Pharmacy Ambassadors have not only expanded within the city, but within Ohio State as well.

Third-year pharmacy student Brenda Shen saw the need for pharmacy education for international students in 2016.

“My parents are first-generation immigrants so I really related to people who struggled with learning about how the U.S. health care system works, so it was really important to me and it was something I was passionate about,” Shen said.

Shen made a few tweaks to the material used by Pharmacy Ambassadors and worked with the Office of International Affairs to present at the international student orientation in August 2016.

“People would come up to me after and just be like, ‘Wow that was so helpful,’ and then they would ask me questions and I could talk to them one-on-one,” she said.

Shen said the group strives to have a lasting effect on those with whom they interact.

“I just hope that they can at least take something away from it and that it will be helpful to them at some point in time or at least direct them to resources that could help them,” she said.

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The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between The Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.