Today’s pharmacy school graduates are no strangers to public service. Some have watched friends and family members serve abroad in the military or respond to natural disasters at home; many participate in volunteer opportunities throughout their course of study.
For pharmacy students who feel the call to public service after graduation, a career in the US Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps is a good option. The corps offers a setting where pharmacists put their knowledge into practice to help others and improve the overall health of the country.
A History of Public Service
The Commissioned Corps was formally established in 1889 as the uniformed services branch of the Marine Hospital Service, whose original mission was to protect US citizens from infectious diseases—such as smallpox and yellow fever—through immunization and quarantine.
As the nation’s public health needs grew, so did the corps. Official duties over the years have included inspecting new immigrants entering the country, working to improve sanitation conditions, and taking the lead on researching human diseases. Most recently, corps officers assisted in the federal government’s response to the anthrax and terrorist attacks in 2001, hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and the current aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti.
Today, the USPHS Commissioned Corps consists of more than 6000 full-time, highly skilled professionals from a number of health care fields. All pharmacists in the corps are uniformed officers, and they serve throughout the Department of Health and Human Services and in other federal agencies (see below).
Most assignments are in the United States, but there are opportunities for pharmacists to work abroad—one recent initiative allowed corps pharmacists to assist the Department of Defense’s health diplomacy missions on the USS Mercy and USS Comfort. All overseas missions are voluntary and require approval from the corps pharmacist’s duty station.
According to the USPHS Commissioned Corps Web site, the mission of the corps is to provide for the health and safety of the nation through “rapid and effective response to public health needs, leadership and excellence in public health practices, and advancement of public health science.”
Captain Carmen Clelland, PharmD, MPA, chief of the Health Professions Support Branch of the Indian Health Service (IHS), notes that the majority of career opportunities in the corps are focused on patient care and counseling. Capt Clelland explains, “There are many opportunities for recent graduates with the corps. Primary care, ambulatory care, and institutional practice opportunities include working with the Indian Health Service, Division of Immigration Health Services, and US Coast Guard. Many initiatives of these 3 organizations allow pharmacists to utilize their clinical skills recently learned in pharmacy school.”
For recent graduates who are interested in policy-making, academia, or an administrative focus, other agencies can provide important employment opportunities. The FDA, for example, has many regulatory positions for which pharmacists provide their expertise and knowledge. Other agencies such as the Health Care Financing Administration, Health Resources and Services Administration, National Institutes of Health, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also utilize corps pharmacists, though Capt Clelland notes that many of these positions are not entry level.
To become a member of the Commissioned Corps, pharmacy graduates need to meet a number of basic qualifications. Candidates must be citizens of the United States, be aged 44 or younger, and pass a physical examination.
Pharmacy graduates also need to hold a BS or PharmD degree from a program accredited by the American Council on Pharmaceutical Education. They need a current, valid, and unrestricted pharmacy license for one of the 50 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, or Guam. Recent pharmacy graduates who do not yet have a valid license may still apply to the corps, but will be appointed for a limited tour of duty until licensure is complete.
Once accepted into the Commissioned Corps, the length of service is 2 years with the same agency. If a pharmacist qualifies for and receives a sign-on bonus, the length of service is 4 years at the initial duty station. After that term, corps pharmacists have the opportunity to apply for positions at different agencies, so that they can continue to grow professionally.
The benefits of a career with the Commissioned Corps are generous. According to the USPHS Commissioned Corps Web site, new pharmacists who enroll in the corps receive the following benefits:
• Competitive starting pay that increases with promotions and years of service
• Free medical and dental care
• Low-cost medical care for family members
• Tax-free housing and meal allowances
• 30 days’ paid vacation, beginning the first year
• Paid sick leave
• Paid maternity leave
• Paid federal holidays
• Malpractice insurance coverage
• Retirement plan with benefits eligibility after 20 years of service
• Thrift Savings Plan
• Low-cost life insurance
For newly commissioned pharmacists, the Commissioned Corps is currently offering a $30,000 accession bonus for signing a 4-year active-duty agreement. Pharmacists already serving in the corps may also be eligible for an annual $15,000 retention bonus.
In addition to these benefits, the USPHS will also cover the moving expenses incurred during relocation, as well as job-related travel expenses. In recognition of the financial burden a pharmacy student accepts by going through professional schooling, the USPHS, in coordination with other federal agencies, also offers loan repayment and other educational and family support programs for those who qualify.
Capt Clelland notes that there are nonmonetary benefits to a career in the corps as well. Flexibility and career growth are 2 big benefits to a career in the corps—in his 20-year career with the IHS, Capt Clelland has served in both rural and urban settings, and has had the opportunity to take positions in patient care, administration, and policy-making.
“One other unique quality that may not be experienced by other personnel systems is the espirit de corp that develops,” Capt Clelland explains. “This is especially true among the pharmacy profession within the corps. In the IHS we have over 600 pharmacists, of which 500 are corps pharmacists. This makes a statement regarding the relationship and the commitment to the ideals of the USPHS and the corps.”
Although the Commissioned Corps maintains a low profile in the national consciousness, it provides valuable services to benefit public health in our country and around the world. Rear Admiral Robert E. Pittman, assistant surgeon general and chief pharmacy officer, USPHS Commissioned Corps, says, “Whether we’re responding to a public health emergency or working as part of a patient care team, pharmacists in the corps make a difference in peoples’ lives every day.”
Pharmacy students who are interested in the USPHS Commissioned Corps should call 800-279-1605 for more information. To apply online, visit www.usphs.gov/applynow/. ●
USPHS Commissioned Corps pharmacy officers work in a variety of agencies, offices, bureaus, and departments and in the federal government, including the following:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The CDC exists to generate the information and tools that people and communities in the United States and around the world need to protect their health. The agency accomplishes this goal by monitoring health, investigating health problems, conducting research, and serving as advocates for healthy behaviors, strategies, and environments.
Department of Homeland Security
The Department of Homeland Security secures the nation against outside threats, and plays a critical role in helping communities through all stages of man-made or natural disasters, from preparation to response and long-term recovery. This agency has also taken the lead on coordinating the government’s response to the H1N1 virus.
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Established in 1930, the Federal Bureau of Prisons protects public safety by ensuring that federal offenders are imprisoned in facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and secure. In addition to providing security, some of the bureau’s 36,000 employees provide inmates with needed programs and services.
Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
The FDA is responsible for protecting public health by assuring the safety of drugs, vaccines, medical devices, the nation’s food supply, cosmetics, dietary supplements, and products that give off radiation. The FDA also advances public health by helping speed product innovation and by providing the public with accurate, science-based information on medicines and foods.
Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
The HRSA is the primary federal agency responsible for improving access to health care services for people who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable. Comprised of 3 bureaus and 13 offices, the HRSA has numerous responsibilities, including granting financial support to health care providers, helping provide health insurance to needy populations, overseeing organ donations, and compensating individuals harmed by vaccination.
Indian Health Service (IHS)
The IHS, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for providing federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives. The IHS is the principal federal health care provider and health advocate for Indian people, and its goal is to raise their health status to the highest possible level.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Composed of 27 institutes and centers, the NIH provides leadership and financial support to medical researchers in every state and around the world. The NIH studies human development and the impact of the environment on health, and investigates preventive measures, causes, treatments, and potential cures for both common and rare diseases.