As a high school student, Afton Yurkon visited the Bouvé College of Health Science at Northeastern University in Boston. Originally from upstate New York, she loved Boston and the college town atmosphere and was looking to expand her horizons at Northeastern. While there, she mistakenly attended a session on pharmacy but soon became fascinated by what the speakers had to say, and she quickly developed an interest in pharmacy and the opportunities it could offer. Fast-forward a few years, and Yurkon is busy working on her executive residency at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) in Alexandria, Virginia, after completing the 6-year PharmD program at Northeastern, and she has never second-guessed her decision to study pharmacy. "I am definitely satisfied with my decision," she says. "I think it was the way they described the profession—getting involved with patient counseling—that got my attention."
As someone who loves communication, working with people, and being involved, Yurkon found the NACDS residency to be a perfect fit. While not the traditional residency for many pharmacy students,Yurkon's interest in professional associations stems from her participation in these groups on the university level. She became a leader in Northeastern University's chapter of the American Pharmacists Association Academy of Student Pharmacists (APhA-ASP) and built up its role at Northeastern, while serving as a chapter president and as a Regional Member-at-Large. At Northeastern, Yurkon also worked with a pharmacy preceptor who was involved in government affairs and legislative issues and taught her the importance of becoming involved and effecting change at that level.
Association management would let Yurkon use her love of writing to work on continuing education (CE) programs and to help pharmacy students. Most importantly, this residency was a great opportunity to increase awareness. Because Yurkon was able to shape her residency based on what she wanted to study, she worked in different departments—student development, pharmacy operations, and CE—but decided that government affairs and lobbying was where she would concentrate her efforts.
It is through the government affairs arm of the NACDS residency that Yurkon can promote pharmacy through legislative process. In this niche, she would visit legislators on the federal level, attend hearings, listen to testimonies, educate members on issues, and address issues according to members' needs. "That's the path I want to pursue," confirms Yurkon.
One of the big projects Yurkon worked on during her NACDS residency was a tamper-resistant prescription pads initiative. She did a lot of research on the back end to educate NACDS members on vendors of these tamper-resistant pads. NACDS members will then use this information when implementation takes place April 1, 2008.
In her capacity as an NACDS resident, Afton was able to see firsthand how groups of pharmacists can get together and lobby to influence legislation in an effort to benefit their patients. One of her greatest experiences as a resident was going to Washington, DC, to lobby on Capitol Hill. She was able to take part in several visits to legislators with chain pharmacy executives.
As an NACDS resident, she also was able to sharpen her writing skills and business communication skills. "I have always loved writing. Now I have to write on a daily basis." Some of her responsibilities include composing business letters and proposals, as well as writing articles for various NACDS publications. She notes, "I am relearning basic writing skills!" She has written updates for the member chief executive officers on the latest happenings and issues in the association and also wrote for the APhA New Practitioner Newsletter about why it is so important to be an advocate as a new practitioner.
Another big project has Yurkon heavily involved in developing Internet-based seminars known as "Webinars" that focus on helping pharmacists and student pharmacists learn how advocacy can impact policy. NACDS is partnering with Pharmacy Times to deliver this series of 4 free, live CE Webinars that address the basics of pharmacy advocacy, how to put knowledge into action with grassroots advocacy, and issues affecting pharmacy on the state and federal levels. Yurkon played a vital role in the implementation of the Webinars by developing content. For this, Yurkon had to brush up on her civics—how does a bill become a law, etc. She wrote the first draft of "Pharmacy 101" for the Webinar, as well as material about grassroots efforts to effect change in pharmacy and about how one becomes an advocate. "I talk to the presenters and assist in developing the content. The content should be basic and simple for pharmacy students to grasp. The Advocacy Webinars, by far, are my biggest project. I have been able to work with the technology vendors, Pharmacy Times, as well as the presenters. I have been the main communicator among the groups and, for that, you need good organization skills. We have never done a Webinar before, so it has been a learning experience for everyone at NACDS. Really, it is a great developmental experience," notes Yurkon.
With all her hard work in advocacy initiatives, it is important to remember that Yurkon is still considered a medication expert. Yurkon says that she feels possibly even more pressure on her to stay on top of her clinical training. Fortunately for her, the association makes every effort to keep her at the top of her clinical game. "NACDS provides me with a plethora of information to stay on top of the new material and CE. Anything clinical that I can go to, I will attend," she says. "The association does a good job of making these opportunities available."
"In actuality," she adds, "I use my clinical knowledge a lot. [...] Over time, if you are not in a particular health care setting, you may lose clinical knowledge. I still love the clinical aspect, and I applaud my colleagues out there in clinical and hospital pharmacies. At the end of the day, however, everything I am doing affects patients. The government affairs part of it— everything goes back to pharmacists and students. Legislation affects the entire profession."
According to Yurkon, the most important attribute needed to pursue this particular career path within pharmacy is passion for the profession. "You must have determination and perseverance and being a self starter is very important.You must be able to motivate yourself. With the projects I start, I get direction, but I still have to go ahead on my own. I have to be the one to make the direct initiation. Also, be independent. As with any residency, it is what you make of it.
You also must be a good communicator and know your issues. Patient care is what we are most concerned about. When approaching lawmakers, it is important for them to understand that these laws may affect their constituents. You should be friendly and have good follow-up abilities. It is not hard to lobby for pharmacy. Not everyone needs to go to Capitol Hill to lobby. There are other methods— phone calls, letter writing. All pharmacists and pharmacy students should note that the little things could really help."
Of her brief stint as a lobbyist, Yurkon says, "it was a great experience. I feel it is a pharmacist's responsibility to become an advocate. Schools do not seem to focus enough on pharmacy legislation," notes Yurkon. "There is a need to embrace pharmacy advocacy in general."
At the halfway point in her residency, Yurkon says that her top experiences to date were getting to hear testimony from an NACDS member on Capitol Hill, working on the tamperresistant prescription pads information initiative, and attending various events for networking. She adds, "I am very proud of what my colleagues are doing to promote the profession. It is a great exchange of ideas." She emphasizes that the best aspect of the NACDS residency is that "you can craft this type of association residency to your own interest."
By taking a path perhaps less traveled—an association residency rather than a clinical residency—have the 24-year-old's career opportunities been limited? She asserts that quite the opposite is true. "The residency provided me with the opportunity to combine my clinical knowledge with my communication skills in a way that could positively affect the profession." She continues, "I feel that this residency has prepared me for a promising career."
For Yurkon, that is the best way to serve her profession. She began her residency in July 2007, and it will end in July 2008. When it is over, her options are numerous. She says that in her residency, she has accomplished so much already, and "everything gets more exciting day by day. It is great to see how you can change the profession in this behind-the-scenes way."
As for her future plans,Afton would love to be a part of a government affairs department at a pharmacy association. She also is considering further education in law or public policy. "It would help me get into that law school way of thinking. It is a completely different school of thought. I have heard that it will really help me."
For now, she says, "I am still trying to discover what I want to do."