More Than Medication

Charnicia Huggins
MMEP, Class of 1997
Medications can only help if you take them.

Charnicia Huggins was covering a press conference on how to safely store prescriptions when she had an epiphany.

A freelance medical writer for Reuters Health at the time, Huggins couldn’t shake the feeling that her future was in medicine. She paid close attention as a female pharmacist spoke enthusiastically about her job, noting that it was a good profession for women and one that offered a choice of specialties.

“She put pharmacy in a different light,” Huggins, PharmD, says. “I never saw it as the right fit for me, but she made it sound so exciting.

Now an ambulatory care pharmacist at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital’s outpatient clinic, Huggins champions collaboration between health care providers to improve patient health. “With the advent of collaborative drug therapy management (CDTM), pharmacists have the ability to partner with physicians to manage drug therapy for specific disease states, such as diabetes or heart failure.”

She helps patients resolve issues with their medication, counseling them about their treatment and explaining the importance of sticking to their prescription regimen. “We tell them exactly what their medications are for and why their doctors prescribed them,” she says.

As Huggins puts it, “Medications can only help if you take them.”

Not a Pill-Pusher

In her capacity as a pharmacist, Huggins tries to empower people to take control of their own health. If patients become knowledgeable about their medications and their health in general, she believes, they may be able to steer clear of the hospital admissions desk.

It’s a vital service, because half of patients with chronic illness in developed countries don’t take their medications as prescribed, according to a World Health Organization report. For patients suffering from diseases like diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and depression, failure to follow the treatment plans designed by their doctors can result in more doctor visits, additional diagnostic tests, increased hospital admissions, and death.

“Adherence is a big issue,” says Huggins. Some can’t afford their medications; others simply fail to take them. The reasons vary, but the damage is great—in both dollars and health outcomes.

“I remember when I told a friend of mine that I was applying to pharmacy school, she called me a pill-pusher,” says Huggins. “But it’s more than just telling people to take their medication. When I talk to patients I ask them, ‘Are you exercising regularly? How about your diet? What are you eating?’ If they’re doing everything right, maybe they can go from four medications to three.”

She adds that pharmacists have long been regarded as among the most trusted, and most accessible, health care providers, making their position in health care unique. “Patients and customers often tell pharmacists things that they withhold from their physicians,” says Huggins. “Patients see us when they are picking up medications to treat illness and when they are picking up medications to maintain health. We know when they stop taking a medication due to its high cost or side effects, or because something they heard on a television or radio program caused concerns about its lack of efficacy.

“It’s up to us to counsel patients about their medications, to contact prescribers about medication concerns, and to refer patients to physicians when they seek an over-the-counter treatment for something we deem to be worthy of more serious medical attention,” she says.

Hard and Soft Sciences

Huggins makes a strong case for pharmacists as essential agents of good health care. But if you had asked her what she wanted to do professionally when she graduated from Long Island University (LIU) in 1999, it’s a fair bet “pharmacist” wouldn’t have made the list.

Her degree in interdisciplinary study, a field of study she created herself as an honor student, was a combination of science, sociology, and psychology. “I wanted to mix the hard science with the soft science,” she says. Ultimately, she says, she wanted to prepare herself for medical school without becoming a typical biology or chemistry major.

She was a sophomore at LIU when a bulletin board notice about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP, now SMDEP) intrigued her. The program would familiarize her with the medical profession, introduce her to people from all over the country, and give her a chance to live on campus rather than at her parents’ house.

Best of all, she’d spend six weeks at Yale, a university that hadn’t even crossed her mind when she was looking at colleges. She had attended a small Christian high school, and students from her school usually went to Christian colleges. She applied to several colleges and chose a secular school, which was close to her home in Brooklyn.

Being at MMEP with students from some of the top Ivy League schools and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) helped her realize that her scholastic background matched theirs.

“At MMEP I found out that, in terms of education, I was competitive.”

“I found out that, in terms of education, I was competitive,” she recalls. “I started to feel that maybe I could’ve been at Yale. It’s a regular place, an Ivy League school—but it’s a school nonetheless, and they accept people from all backgrounds.”

During the program, a faculty member suggested that she return the following summer to participate in Yale BioSTEP (Biomedical Science Training and Enrichment Program), a research-training program for underrepresented students. She did, performing lab work and other research activities under the guidance of a Yale faculty member and mentor.

From Journalist to Pharmacist

Back at LIU, an adviser recommended her for an internship to write medical news at Reuters Health. She eventually was hired for a full-time position and soon decided to get a master’s degree in journalism, choosing Columbia University in 2001. She continued writing for Reuters, remaining onboard as a freelancer when her division was downsized.

Then came the press conference that opened her mind to pharmacy.

She had friends who were pharmacists, and her mother had even suggested it as a career. Still, Huggins never saw it as right for her. But as she waited after the presentation to ask a question for her story, she listened intently to the pharmacist’s response to someone else’s questions about the profession itself. “She said things about pharmacy I had never heard before,” she says. “And I was ready for a change in my life. I wanted to do something different.”

She figured that she could combine her journalism degree with a pharmacy degree. “I remember calling a pharmacist friend and saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me all this was possible in pharmacy?” Huggins recalls. “And my friend said, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re right. You would be a great pharmacist!’”

So she returned to LIU as a transfer student. Since she already had an undergraduate degree, she says, her pharmacy training took four years rather than the usual six.

Finding Her Calling

Huggins did her residency at Brooklyn Hospital, and is now an assistant professor at Touro College of Pharmacy in Harlem, across the street from the famed Apollo Theater.

She also works at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital’s Brown Bag Clinic; twice a week, patients can carry (or “brown bag”) all of their medications to the hospital for consultation with a pharmacist. Huggins and her colleagues advise patients on a range of topics—from side effects, to the risks of taking non-prescribed medication that may interact with their prescriptions, to what can happen when they miss doses.

She still writes on occasion, but considers what she does for patients at the clinic—along with the health fairs she coordinates and the students she teaches—to be her calling.

“I enjoy the interaction with people. I enjoy the interaction with students,” she says. “I love to learn, which is probably evident from my schooling. And I love to gain the knowledge necessary to teach others.”