In the keynote address at the 2013 American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) Midyear Clinical Meeting in Orlando, retired general and former secretary of state Colin Powell shared his thoughts on the US health care system and how pharmacists can play a bigger role and improve access to care.
Gen. Powell noted that he has received decades of quality medical care through the military, including a comprehensive annual physical examination. This takes about half a day, whereas the remaining “364.5 days of the year,” he said, is largely in the hands of pharmacists. “You are my health care provider from when I get up and I take my blood pressure medicine, and I take my cholesterol control medicine, and I take my reflux medicine, and you are always there for me when I need refills or advice,” said Gen. Powell. “I know you’re debating whether the Social Security Act should be changed to call you this or call you that. But all I know is you’re my health care provider every single day of my life, and I thank you for that.”
Gen. Powell described a recent health scare involving his wife of 51 years, Alma, who had titanium coils implanted in her head to block off a number of aneurysms. Alma, like Gen. Powell, has blood pressure issues. He said he was impressed with how well the medical team coordinated her medication care. “They were constantly adjusting what she was getting to relieve her pain or deal with a problem that she had,” said Gen. Powell. “And because she has other health issues, it had to be constantly monitored, and that monitoring was done not only by the medical doctors there, but also by the pharmacy staff.”
However, many people in the United States do not receive care at this level, he said. Gen. Powell shared the story of a woman who sells him firewood near his home in northern Virginia who had medical difficulties around the same time his wife did. This woman needed a magnetic resonance imaging scan to help diagnose a brain disorder, but did not have the money to pay for it. Gen. Powell explained that although he helped her get the care she needed, he came away from the experience reminded of the importance of every American having access to quality care.
“I keep saying to myself, ‘I don’t know anything about Obamacare. I don’t know anything about the Affordable Care Act. I don’t understand any of this. I’m an infantry officer—we tend to see things rather directly and simply,’” Gen. Powell said. “And what I see rather directly and simply is that every American should have coverage of some kind. I don’t care what you call it. I don’t care how you actually organize it, but surely we have people throughout this audience and elsewhere throughout the medical system and in our Congress who could put together a system that would give us universal health care.”
Since leaving the public stage when he stepped down as secretary of state in 2005, Gen. Powell noted that he has been on the speaking circuit, addressing groups such as ASHP. As a result, he has had the opportunity to learn about many different groups’ interests, concerns, and aspirations. He noted that the experience has increased his optimism regarding the solvability of the existing health care problems. “What I see in all my audiences is a level of concern—you’re worried about our economy, you’re worried about our health care system,” he said. “But what I see above everything else is a level of confidence and optimism. You still believe. You still think that America is the same America that got over problems in the past and will continue to prevail in the future…I only wish I could bottle up that confidence and optimism I see everywhere in this country, take it back to Washington, and pour it over the heads of our politicians and say, ‘We’ve got to get going.’”
In a brief question-and-answer session, Gen. Powell addressed the topic of how pharmacists can help fix the health care system by providing additional access to health care for patients. One of the most important challenges for pharmacists, he stated, is changing the public’s impression of them as mere fillers of pill bottles. He emphasized that leadership is a key part of the solution.
“It’s going to take time for you to change the image of a pharmacist as just somebody pushing a pill bottle to a clerk who hands it across the window,” Gen. Powell said. “It’s a question of freeing up pharmacists who can be leaders and who really know everything about their profession so they can spend more time with other health care practitioners and doctors and also with patients, not only in the hospital but out of the hospital as well. So, I think you’ve got your work cut out for you, but I think you have the right vision to achieve what you’re after.”