Combining a Passion for Making a Difference With Entrepreneurship
Directions in Oncology Pharmacy® talks to Gordon Vanscoy, PharmD, MBA, CACP, recently named a national Entrepreneur of the Year for 2020 by Ernst & Young.
Directions in Oncology Pharmacy® is getting to know oncology pharmacy professionals through a series of interviews. In this issue, we talk to Gordon Vanscoy, PharmD, MBA, CACP, recently named a national Entrepreneur of the Year for 2020 by Ernst & Young.
About the Pharmacist
Gordon Vanscoy, PharmD, MBA, CACP
Title: Chairman and CEO of PANTHERx Rare Pharmacy and chairman and CEO of RareMed Solutions
Pharmacy School: Duquesne University
What motivated you to become a pharmacist and to practice in the oncology space?
A: When I was a kid, my family were blue-collar individuals from western Pennsylvania. I was [the] fourth child of 4 and the first to go to college. I only knew of the University of Pittsburgh (PITT) back then. Being a person who was very proud for the [PITT] Panthers, I chose that route.
My mom and dad always wanted a doctor in the family but, locally, the person who provided [me with] the most primary care was a pharmacist. It’s just a fact. It was a different time, and he was a pretty well-respected individual. So, I decided, instead of just going for a 4-year degree, [I’d] also apply to pharmacy school. I started college when I was 16 and pursued a bachelor in science for pharmacy degree. It was a difficult decision, to complete pharmacy school or to go into medical school, but I loved all aspects of pharmacy.
When I went for my PharmD, there were only 4 other people in my class at Duquesne University. I finished a residency, did a fellowship, went back to PITT for my MBA, and then I started my career. The anchor in my career was always pharmacy, but I was an entrepreneur. I eventually started 8 companies, including PANTHERx and RareMed.
I’ve kind of been a fish out of water. I was the one who walked in the different realms of entrepreneurship and academics, and I loved both realms. [That] is how I met my business partners, who were my former students. Because of them and my team, we are where we are today. It’s pretty incredible.
We got into the oncology side of things, primarily for 2 reasons. One, in 2011, a pediatric voucher act was proposed to the federal government that would accelerate orphan drug development, both financially and politically. That went through to the Orphan Drug Act. What we saw in 2014 and 2015 was the FDA pipeline loaded with orphan drugs. We have these products that target very, very small populations where you see significant benefit with limited risk. That’s why [I chose] oncology.
The other side of it is that everybody has a personal experience with cancer. My wife is a cancer survivor, and my mother-in-law [had cancer and] was not a survivor.
Putting together a business opportunity and a passion for making a difference on the cancer side is why PANTHERx Rare ended up smack dab in the middle of being a leading provider in oncology and oncology care.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the Entrepreneur of the Year award and what it means to you?
A: Honestly, I was surprised [by the win]. I was taken aback. We had won in the region, and then we were competing nationally. I didn’t even tell many people that we were a part of it with the anticipation that nothing would come, and we were grateful to Ernst & Young for our involvement in the event, as well as their support. It’s a very, very rigorous process. It’s a number of essays and financial analyses, interviews that go on, and there are a number of things that happen in different ways. So for us, to think when we started this process that we would actually have an opportunity to be a national winner was pretty remote.
When it was announced, I was almost speechless. For our region, the last time somebody had even made it to the finals was in 2002, so it was an 18-year period between anyone ever making it to being a finalist in the nationals and [then winning.] And quite honestly, the thing I’m really proud of is that pharmacy was represented on a national level. In an industry dominated by giants where you have corporate entities that are just consuming companies left and right, we represented an independent company. Seeing pharmacists with business acuity win, and seeing it on a national level where there are few others, was pretty daunting. I’m really proud to be representing pharmacy on that national level, and that pharmacy has that degree of talent. It’s not [just] my talent. I’m a representative of my team, and my team is absolutely phenomenal.
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing oncology pharmacy?
A: It’s interesting. We have this forefront of gene therapy and there is so much promise with it. However, I think the biggest challenge is going to be how we afford it. These products, as we go for smaller and smaller populations—and remember, it still takes a lot of money to develop and design these drugs—what we’re ending up with is extremely expensive therapies. Now we have gene therapies and cell therapies, where you may be talking [about] millions of dollars to treat a single patient. We have yet to get to the point where we’ve had enough gene therapies in order to understand the bell curve because we just have a few. I think that’s the future, quite frankly.
I think in oncology, you have traditional oncology, and you have what’s in the future. PANTHERx Rare is focused on those future products. How do we look at these advanced entities that are targeted for small populations where we need real-time data, and very close relationships with the patient? In oncology pharmacy, we’re going to have to address [this and] how we do it. Because it’s not just the financial side of it, it’s the delivery side of it. These entities, some of them [must remain at negative] hundreds of degrees in order to get distributed, some have a shelf life of 12 hours, [and] some of them are coming from centers. If they are manufactured in Boston, and the patient is in California, how do you get it from the manufacturer to the pharmacy, to the patient within a period of time where it’s still conducive to a positive outcome? So, right now, that’s my focus.
Q: What is a recent advancement or success you think is really going to impact the oncology pharmacy space or that you are personally excited about?
A: We have a cold chain product, and we’re seeing more and more cold chain and unique distribution model products. We were able to adopt a 5G-enabled refrigerator that has an iPad on the front of it. And each dose of the drug is tagged with radio frequency identification. When we ship out the drug, we also ship these refrigerators to the patient’s house, and we know when the patient takes the drug out of the refrigerator. We can communicate with the patient via this technology.
We send a nurse to the patient’s house in order to train them, not only on injecting the product but also on the refrigerator. It’s fascinating to see adherence get to that level. We know when a patient misses a dose, whether the power went out, and whether there was a temperature dispersion. And we are able to plan for patient’s vacations. We had a circumstance where this product had to go to China. We had to make sure the product [and] a cold chain were able to get through TSA, that there was enough of it, and that all the supplies got to the patient.
I think that even though this is an example of technology at its best, you [have] to make sure that the technology marries with the understanding of the patient because it’s not for everybody. Not everybody understands the level of how to use that type of system. Some patients like to be communicated [with] via the telephone. Some patients like to be texted. What we try to do is tailor technology around patient preferences to make it a better experience.
Q: What do you think will be permanently changed in pharmacy by the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic?
A: There are a couple of things. Interestingly, I think pharmacy was recognized as a life-sustaining profession. You remember when pharmacy was the most respected profession; then we got away from that for a variety of reasons. But I think now [that] pharmacy has been involved in ordering some of the COVID-19 tests, it is going to be instrumental in [the] vaccine delivery process. And pharmacy [has] frontline workers. You didn’t see your pharmacies close. So, what I think we’ve seen COVID-19 do is bring pharmacy back to the forefront as a health care provider that is there for patients, regardless of the circumstance.
I think that [perception] was magnified at PANTHERx Rare and RareMed because we have dozens of exclusive or semiexclusive situations where the only place you can get a product in the country is from us. We have absolutely, positively, no option to close. None. We close, and patients’ lives suffer. So, we have to have not only have plans in place to manage through that crisis, [but] we also have to have redundancy plans, [and] we have to have backups to the redundancy plans.
What has also changed is work from home. Yes, we have to have a distribution component that has to be onsite, but at PANTHERx Rare, we suggest that 80% of our workforce is now decentralized or virtual. And at RareMed, 95% is [remote]. I think pharmacy, and in particular direct delivery pharmacy, has gone virtual.
What hasn’t changed is our focus on patients by teams. [For] every disease state, [for] every drug that we have, there is a multidisciplinary team that is purely dedicated to it. These folks are on Zoom all the time. These teams still exist, but it’s virtual. And they can do it from their homes. But again, you still have to have the distribution component available… and you [have] to have practices in place to ensure that COVID-19 never penetrates and shuts that down.
Q: What do you enjoy most about practicing in oncology pharmacy?
A: It centers on the patient. In my organization, I lead people, and what I enjoy the most from my perspective is supporting, developing, and understanding what my frontline providers are doing on behalf of our patients. We create systems, we create education, and we create processes to support these individuals. And they are the front lines that do it. That’s the reward.
One of our organizations is now approaching a $2 billion organization just with 300 associates. It’s amazing how so few people on the grand scale can have such an impact on so many lives. They do it 1 patient at a time. We’re not rushing them, we’re not pushing them, and if they can take those few extra moments with the patient, we encourage that. The most important thing for me is getting feedback from our patients about how my pharmacists, pharmacy techs, insurance resolution specialists, or nurses have made a difference in their life.
Q: What is 1 fact about you that may be unexpected to your customers or clients?
A: I’m a private pilot. I do crazy things that drive my partners and sometimes my family crazy. We all enjoy scuba diving, and I captain my own boat. I like doing things that are somewhat on the edge, but not that much, quite frankly. It’s that thrill-seeking that I think we brought to business and the risk-taking that is necessary in order to propel it.
The other thing, which isn’t a surprise, is I’m probably the most family-oriented person you’ll ever find. I just had a granddaughter! She is now 6 months old, and I watch her eat. She went from a bottle to now eating solid foods, pureed foods, and that was the joy of my day. Being a grandfather is a really great place to be.