Mentoring, Supporting Others Can Help Advance Women Pharmacists

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA, discussed her career, the impacts of COVID-19 on women in pharmacy, and how mentorship can pave the way for more women pharmacists.

To celebrate Women Pharmacist Day, Pharmacy Times spoke with Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA, director of healthcare quality, safety, and information at US Pharmacopeia (USP). Eldridge discussed her journey through her career, the impacts of COVID-19 on women in pharmacy, and how mentorship can pave the way for more women pharmacists.

This interview is a part of a Pharmacy Times® Women in Pharmacy series which highlights extraordinary women of diverse backgrounds who are achieving and innovating in the pharmacy field today.

Q: What inspired you to pursue a career in the pharmacy field?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: So, I did my bachelor's in biology and after completing some time in the lab, I knew that I wanted something more. I knew that I wanted to multitask and I wanted to be challenged a bit more. And I went to the [National Institutes of Health] to meet a friend of my dad's and walking through the hallways, there was a gentleman who I was able to encounter and ask what he did. And he told me he was a pharmacist, and I thought, Pharmacist, NIH, what do you do? And he's like, “I do a little bit of everything. I can do research, I can do writing, I can do teaching.” All of the things I was interested in. And he said, “If you want to be able to do all of that, have a different day every day, and not be bored and do something exciting, that's impacting others, pharmacy is the way to go.” And believe it or not, after that conversation, I went straight to take my PCAT and got into pharmacy school.

Q: How has your background, perhaps even your childhood, helped to shape your professional goals, work, and efforts in pharmacy?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: So, I am the product of a single parent, and my mom went to nursing school when I was around 4 years old. And she took me to school with her every day, and we went from school to work. And I stayed at the hospital while she worked for 8 hours on the 10th floor of that hospital, and they put me to work. I would help refill EKG carts and I helped actually stuff envelopes and seal them for patients. I still don't know where those envelopes went, but I would have 500 envelopes.

And during that time, I was in a phase from basically the age of 4 to 8 of going to school, a nursing school, and going to the hospital. And I loved it. It gave me an environment where I love learning. And I loved working. And that's where I think I got my professional goals and work ethic from in the sense that I knew I wanted to be someone who was constantly learning. And that's the beauty of pharmacy. In pharmacy, there's always new information. And so, you're always having to use your brain, you're always having to learn and absorb and apply that to your work. And I feel like that prepped me for the pharmacy profession.

Q: What has been the role of mentorship in your career?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: Mentorship has been a big thing. It was a subtle thing, but a big thing. I started my pharmacy career as a NICU clinical specialist. And that was really all I had in mind—taking care of the babies, working with the team. And in the midst of that I got the opportunity to be the NICU clinical specialist expert, or the NICU expert for when we were building our EHR system. And so, what that meant is I basically was able to help build order sets. And to do that I got sent to the headquarters of the EHR company, and when I got there, I loved learning. It was kind of the informatics portion of things that were so interesting. And I got to work with our vice president, which is a female. And along the way, for the week that we were there, I was able to just see how she commanded attention, see how she worked with the boys. How she was able to get things done and get a sense of the course that she had in pharmacy. And I really looked at her and thought this is someone I would like to be like, and through that experience, she actually took me under her wing, and really guided me throughout my career to say, you know, go in this direction, take this opportunity. And I realized that as a female in pharmacy, we don't have that opportunity very often to see a woman who is in leadership, who is engaged and enjoying what she does.

And so, I wanted to make sure as soon as I graduated that I gave that back. And as I've been going through my career, I give that back because everyone should have a mentor. Everyone should have someone who can encourage them in their career and help them navigate through all of the opportunities and through all of the movements that come our way.

Q: Were you or any female colleagues in the field impacted professionally by the demands of the pandemic, and what did that impact look like?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: During the pandemic, I was working in the hospital. And everyone was professionally impacted in that environment, especially during the early phases of COVID-19. And in the hospital, I was in a leadership role. So, during that time, I was dealing quite a bit with medication and supply shortages. And with the staff fears, there was a lot of fears going on with our staff at that time, [and] we really did have to navigate through that. Because at that point, the challenge was all of the unknowns with COVID-19. And my challenges were much more around getting the medications needed to try and save the lives of our COVID-19 patients, which in the beginning was a real challenge because they weren't available. We didn't know what worked. And I spent hours, weekends, after work time, trying to obtain medications and working with the medical staff to treat patients. It was also a great deal of time working with the medical team on alternative treatments. Some medications weren't working, and we needed to really put our heads together for ICU patients on what was our alternative, what was the other option. It was a roller coaster. And some treatments worked. Some treatments didn't. And that's not anything new in health care. But for some reason, with the pandemic noise, everything felt a little bit stronger. Your wins felt stronger, and your losses felt stronger. It truly kind of felt like a war zone and I made connections with other female attendings, female nurses, that I think that has stayed with me forever.

I like to tell the story, which is a known national story, that one of our physicians who was the head of the ICU during COVID-19, worked with me to be the main remdesivir contact with the government, and really helped take care of our ICU patients. And he got COVID-19, and the female attendings taking care of him and all the attendings and the nurses, we did everything we could to save him. He did not make it. And that was one of our biggest losses for us in the hospital because this was someone we'd worked with for years. And so that kind of made the pandemic even more professionally impactful because you were dealing with people who wanted to save lives and were willing to put theirs at risk to do so.

I think nurses personally had the biggest and heaviest impact. As the director, I really worked with the nursing directors, who are mostly female. And no matter the shortage situation, no matter the staffing issues, they were there every day doing everything possible to make sure we were able to take care of our patients.

Q: What are your hopes for the attention and focus paid to supporting and calling attention to the efforts of women in pharmacy as we move forward to define new workplace standards in a post-pandemic world?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: Women are caregivers. We are caregivers at home and we're caregivers at work. I think we love to multitask, we're good at multitasking, we're good at delegating work. And I hope the post-pandemic world shines that a bit more. I think that prior to the pandemic, it's always been hard for women to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be a leading voice in the health care setting. And I think the pandemic almost evened out our voices. And I hope that from this experience, people are able to see how much we can do and how much we can lead.

I was talking to one of my nurse directors actually this week. And she's still in the hospital. She's still working hard. But she's now a leader. And I am glad that that came out of that because they were able to see that as a woman, she was able to handle the stress. She was able to take care of the patients. She was able to handle her staff and just all the skillsets that we have sometimes really got highlighted through the pandemic. And I hope in the post-pandemic world, you'll see more women stepping up and being acknowledged for what they've done and what they can do.

Q: What are some moments from your professional career that significantly impacted how you view the pharmacy profession and your role in it?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: Throughout my professional career—and I've done a lot, I've been a clinical specialist, I've done teaching, I've done informatics, I now moved into a whole new role, all in public health. And throughout all of it, I think the moment that always stays with me the most is my time as a hematology-oncology clinical specialist. And the reason that time probably sticks with me the most is because it was an opportunity to help children at the most painful times in their lives and parents at the most painful times of their lives. And I was able to work with an awesome team of attendings and nurse practitioners and nursing staff take care of the patients.

So, there's this moment where we had a 2-year-old who had cancer, and we got to a place where we couldn't do anything to save him. And it was about getting him to Disney World. That's all it was about. His parents just wanted to take him to Disney World one more time. And the physicians worked on, you know, getting all of the orders written and sending it to Orlando, and making sure they were able to have all the medications the parents needed for their child. And the nurses worked on just making sure that, you know, the ports were in place, everything we could do. And I went in the room at the end. And the parents were just in this silent place, it was just one of those just dark, silent places where the room—what can you say? But what I had done in the background was make sure that, you know, medications, concentrations were correct, that the pharmacy had them made, that they had to have everything made so that they could travel with it so that it could get there. And I just wanted to make sure that those parents in all that they were going through, didn't have to worry about treating their child and getting medication. And those parents looked at me in that moment. And they just said, “Thank you for doing everything you can to help us.” And it stays with me because that's why we go into pharmacy. It's about helping people, helping patients, being not only an advocate for them, but a caregiver for them. And I think that that's why I love the profession. That's why I'm in the profession. And that's why, you know, we try to promote the profession to those early in their career looking for something meaningful to do.

Q: What led you to pursue an MBA as a pharmacist and how did that impact your career?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: The moment I graduated pharmacy school, I went became a NICU clinical specialist and really enjoyed it for 6 years. And I got to a place where I had done everything that I could and really wanted to learn and wanted to do something different, and I was invited to work as an informaticist for the system. And during that time, you had to make decisions, and you had to kind of delegate work, and you had to be on the ball with moving and getting things done. You have to project manage. And I was really enjoying it but I wasn't seeing myself doing it. I was just doing it. And that mentor I talked about stopped me and said You need to be a leader in pharmacy. And it was one of those moments, you're like, you're talking to me? And she and another mentor kind of came by and they said, “Absolutely.” And they said, “Go get your MBA and know more about operational things in pharmacy, understand and go learn about this.” And they gave me a list of things that I needed to do in order to be an effective and good leader. And I did.

I applied to get my masters and it ended up happening when I had already gotten a management position. And I appreciated going and getting my masters as I had just stepped into a management position because everything I was learning I was able to apply. At the same time, I am a firm believer that if I'm going to do something, I want to have all of the knowledge, the information and the skillsets I need to do a good job on it. And that's why I ended up pursuing the MBA. And I’m very glad that I've been able to apply a lot of those lessons as I went from manager to director. All of that information helps give me a strong backbone—I can help with the budget; I can have more of an opportunity and skillset to do things that I didn't have just with my PharmD.

Q: Do you have any recommendations or guidance for women in the pharmacy field who are looking to advance into leadership or executive roles?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: I try to mentor and continue to mentor to pharmacy students and to those residents and to those early in their career. And what I like to tell them is you have to set goals. I'm a firm believer in setting milestones, both personally and professionally. If you don't set a marker to strive to, it's kind of easy to not move forward. So, you have to make up in your mind [that] I want to move forward and set goals to move forward. Look at women out there who you admire, who you see are leaders. What degrees do they have? What have they accomplished? And utilize that as information to help you pursue your MBA or pursue a leadership certification program.

And the other thing that I think is really helpful is having a mentor who's been through this, who can say, like they did to me, “Hey, you need this, you need an MBA, you need more experience as a manager.” Any information they can give you so that you can really not only have on paper what's important, but also have the skills that others know are needed to get the job done.

And then finally, I think it's taking the opportunities. As women, we tend to let opportunities go for various reasons. But sometimes an opportunity is an opportunity. It is a window to walk through. And there's a lot of times that those windows are scary. And my thought is you can't lose for trying. If you have the skillsets, if you set the goals, if you're committed to the work and you get that opportunity, it can only be a good one. And I do always like to say that, with the titles come more responsibility. And people tend to go, “Oh, I don't want that. That's too much.” It's only too much if you don't feel prepared for it. But if you prepare yourself for it, you can handle it, and you will get it done. And if you have mentors and support, they will help you get it done.

Q: What might be a takeaway from your own career progression, from working at medical centers to moving into leadership at USP, that you could share with women in pharmacy who are looking to advance their own career or make a change?

Nakia Eldridge, PharmD, MBA: Pharmacy is a small world. They tell you that. And we tend to work in silos. So, I worked in the hospital for over 16 years; it's all I knew. The public health arena opportunity at USP was scary. I still have people are like, “You went there? How is it?” You went to the other side; you've jumped out of your comfort zone into an uncomfortable zone. And I think with any career progression, that's how it's always been. As a clinical specialist, getting a manager position, taking that opportunity that was going into an uncomfortable zone from going from a manager to a director, [is] definitely an uncomfortable zone. I think everyone needs to get uncomfortable. I think you have to be uncomfortable to be able to move forward. It's harder to move forward when you get comfortable. So, my takeaway is always stay uncomfortable. It keeps you sharp, it keeps you growing. And if you're lucky, it keeps you fulfilled.