Spotlight in Practice: Chief of Pharmacy, Innovator, and Design Thinker


Today, we talk to Jim O’Donnell, RPh, MBA, design thinker, innovator, and chief pharmacy executive at Community Health Network in Indianapolis, Indiana, about his career path, and his passion to improve medication adherence, wearable technology, and good design.

How long has your career in pharmacy spanned thus far, and what led you to your current role?JO: I went through pharmacy school and I was interested in business. I then went back and earned a MBA at Indiana University, and then did an administrative fellowship at Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas. Next, I actually moved out of pharmacy for a while and became a facility director, where I had the opportunity help build surgery suites and a hospital. I loved it, because it taught me how to bring ideas to life and make things happen. I then took an executive position at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but we needed our parents to help with our kids. We then decided to move back to the Midwest. I took a position as pharmacy director at Community Hospital East in Indianapolis, and then moved into my current role as chief pharmacy executive.

What do you love about your current role?JO: Recruiting, developing, and working with staff is my current favorite area of work. It is my personal opinion that we have the best staff in the Midwest—their team skills, communication skills and passion for making a difference are the best. I also enjoy talking to patients and hearing their stories and how we can help them.

You are passionate about medication adherence. What are you doing about this challenge?JO: Medication adherence is a $290 billion problem. I have been studying different markets where there was a huge disruption. For example, movie rentals. I look at Blockbuster and how they existed 15 years ago with all their stores, and then one new company, Netflix, came along and completely transformed that industry.

I look at our current state and wonder why we are still working with the bottle of pills. You can get Halloween candy that’s easy to take in unit dose, so why can’t we do that with medications? Also, drug monitoring—when patients open their vials, for example, can a signal be sent via Bluetooth to a provider or to a patient’s chart?

You have a penchant for wearable technology and how that can improve health care. Where did that come from?JO: The smartphone, more than anything has intrigued me. Fitbit, for example, is what people are wearing to link activity via the band to the phone. But, if you can take that technology to the next level and measure a patient’s temperature, blood pressure, or even drug levels, that would give even more information to a provider to make better decisions for patients. Google Glass is another example. Patients can be walking telemetry units now with the technology coming online.

You also attended the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford, and have a passion for design thinking in health care. What did you learn?JO: For me, I wanted the ability to learn more about how to make big, disruptive changes in health care. I want big changes. Medication adherence is an easy example. I wanted a new way of thinking about change, and enrolled in the school for this reason.

The takeaway for me was learning empathy. Having empathy allows us to understand the patient experience and understand why we, as humans, do things in certain ways. One of the techniques they taught us at the school was the 5 whys, or to ask why five times when probing and asking questions.

We also observed individuals and immersed ourselves in experiences. A design thinker needs the experience for insight. Without insight, you cannot make any large-scale positive changes.

What advice do you have for pharmacy students about managing their careers?JO: I would suggest that everyone keep on learning. Get out there and do things for the right side of your brain. Play an instrument. Go to a museum. Take an art class. Connect to others outside of your industry, and develop your creative skills.

David Kelley, a professor at Stanford, has a catchphrase that discusses ‘thinking like a traveler.’ What he means is, when you go to a new or foreign place, you’re more sensitive and notice things more—the dress, food, stores, and different interactions. If people in pharmacy could do this, coupled with asking why more, we could affect bigger and better changes in pharmacy and health care.

Erin Albert is a pharmacist, author, entrepreneur, lawyer and associate professor at Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. For more information of her writing, go to

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