The Women of Specialty Pharmacy: Industry Advocates, Entrepreneurs, Innovators
The first of a 2-part series on the influential women shaping the specialty pharmacy industry.
There is no doubt that female leaders have helped shape the current state of specialty pharmacy and continue to enable its growth. Many of these dynamic, influential women joined the ranks of leadership over the past 2 decades, disrupting what was once largely a male-dominated industry.
In doing so, they have also paved the way for future generations, as more women are entering this sector than ever before. Just listing the credentials and roles of these executives and entrepreneurs is not enough to truly communicate their contributions.
These efforts range from lobbying for legislative changes that will halt direct and indirect remuneration (DIR) fees to transforming care delivery models. Below is a sampling of inspirational stories from a few of these well-known and highly-respected women—detailing their achievements, the obstacles they have overcome, and how they continue to impact the specialty pharmacy industry.
Rebecca Shanahan, CEO, Avella Specialty Pharmacy
Incredibly, Rebecca Shanahan began her career in this industry at the age of just 15, when she began stocking the front shelves at a retail pharmacy. She credits this early exposure—even though she wasn't involved in drug dispensing—with teaching her about the value pharmacists offer through personalized interactions with their patients. It also set the stage for the rest of her career, which was anything but traditional, as well.
Despite this early experience, Shanahan did not follow a direct route into health care leadership by earning her business degree or MBA out of the gate. Instead, she decided to pursue law school. After graduation, she began work as general counsel of a hospital system and later, at a specialty pharmacy.
This led to her transition into other leadership roles within the sector. Shanahan had discovered that she enjoyed branching out from the law, which led to prestigious positions as the head of Aetna Specialty Pharmacy and CEO of an industry consulting group, before joining Avella in 2014.
Rebecca’s own family seemed surprised that she wanted to make the leap into health care leadership instead of pursuing a more traditional path as a practicing lawyer. Yet she found many similarities between legal work and her C-suite roles—namely that you have to pursue creative, sometimes unconventional, solutions to overcome any roadblocks in your way.
In the end, this decision proved to be a good one for both Rebecca and the organizations she has led. In her current work at Avella, Rebecca has transformed the specialty pharmacy by driving double digit growth, leading 2 acquisitions, and significantly expanding the organization’s hospital capabilities. She also serves as president of the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy (NASP), where she leads important work in advocacy and government relations that will help ensure the sustainability and success of our industry.
According to her colleagues in the industry, Rebecca is a “powerhouse” and has made “amazing contributions to specialty pharmacy.” Her recognition in this area extends even beyond health care, as she was just named Entrepreneur of the Year by EY for the Desert Mountain region.
She also strives to give back to other female leaders at the local level through her Arizona Women in Healthcare Network, which gives local female leaders an opportunity to exchange knowledge and form valuable, rewarding relationships.
Sheila Arquette, executive director of the National Association of Specialty Pharmacy
Sheila Arquette was also destined for a career in this industry from a young age, although she may not have realized it at the time. It was her father who steered her to the world of pharmacy, as he appreciated all the opportunities, flexibility and security that this career would provide for his daughter.
Just as he anticipated, Arquette went on to earn her pharmacy degree and began a career within the hospital and retail settings. However, after being involved in a serious car accident in 1996, even numerous surgeries could not restore her ability to return to standing pharmacy work.
At the time, Arquette didn’t realize that the world of pharmacy was so much broader than just direct pharmacy-patient interaction. Fortunately, a friend referred her to one of the largest HMOs in Western New York, where she quickly worked her way up the ladder from the prior authorization department manager to serving as assistant director of pharmacy, and later, pharmacy director. In 2010, the plan opened its own specialty pharmacy, giving her the opportunity to gain valuable expertise within this side of the pharmacy business.
Arquette leveraged that knowledge, as she made the next significant leap in her career—taking on the role of executive director for NASP. This demanding role requires that Arquette lead advocacy efforts in Washington, DC, and at the state level while also working tirelessly to meet the needs of the pharmacies her organization represents.
This includes work she has recently taken on in the fight against DIR fees—educating legislators about how these fees are being misused and misrepresented, as well as their negative impact on patients. Her biggest challenge is delegation—as she enjoys all of the different aspects of this position and too-often attempts to implement all of the strategies and tactics she has designed.
According to Arquette, she’s willing to take on a greater workload and more responsibility because this is a profession based on something she believes in and loves—providing the best possible patient care.
Asked about her advice to other up-and-coming female leaders, Arquette expands upon her own key to her success: be willing to constantly learn and grow. While she wasn’t on a clear trajectory to a leadership position, Arquette was constantly asking her superiors what she could learn next, which opened up so many new opportunities for her.
Cheryl Allen, vice president of Industry Relations for Diplomat Pharmacy, Inc
No matter what challenging role she has taken on, Cheryl Allen defines herself as a pharmacist, first and foremost. Whether she is working with a provider, manufacturer, health plan or pharmacy benefit manager, Allen maintains the same patient-first mindset.
After graduating from pharmacy school, she began her career as a retail pharmacist, providing a solid foundation for her entrepreneurial future—founding and operating her own specialty pharmacy. There she wore many hats, one-moment providing clinical support to a patient and the next taking out the trash and cleaning the floor. This experience gave Allen an incredibly wide perspective on all of the clinical, operational, sales, and marketing aspects of this business.
Allen feels fortunate to find her passion in specialty pharmacy and especially enjoys helping patients access powerful drug therapies and stay compliant with treatment. In her current role at Diplomat, the nation’s largest independent specialty pharmacy, Allen does this in a variety of ways.
This includes partnering with drug manufacturers to understand how their products impact the patient journey and bringing together different stakeholders across the delivery channel to work collaboratively for the people they serve. For example, in one situation, she learned from a clinical trial that patients would have to “down dose” early after initiating a particular therapy.
Allen worked with the manufacturer to provide a strategy to educate and engage patients to ensure that this complex treatment protocol would be precisely followed. She is especially gratified to see solutions such as these come together in real-life, as evidenced by the actionable information she’s able to supply back to her manufacturer partners.
Allen has been fortunate to learn and grow through a variety of different leadership roles in specialty pharmacy and health technology firms. It has been a fascinating journey for her, marked by rewarding relationships with colleagues and patients, many of whom have become friends along the way.
Kelly Ratliff, president of US Bioservices, part of AmerisourceBergen
Kelly Ratliff entered the specialty pharmacy space more than two decades ago. After receiving her doctor of pharmacy degree, she began her career in the home infusion sector.
In one of her first roles at US Bioservices, Ratliff was tasked with opening a new pharmacy in Englewood, Colorado. There she took on a variety of responsibilities, which included managing the pharmacy, counseling patients and even delivering medications to their home when needed.
Ratliff credits these early days for developing many of the skills that translate to the broader areas of responsibility she enjoys today, include provider and payer solutions, clinical operations, and business development. That same willingness to go above and beyond for patients still serves as a guiding force in everything Ratliff does and the culture she has created in her current role as president of US Bioservices.
Ratliff believes strongly that patient care must be at the center of every business decision made in the pharmacy industry. She particularly enjoys developing care models that guide patients through the complexities of the health care system in order to have positive impact on their health and their lives.
Ratliff oversees US Bioservices’ integrated approach to high-touch clinical care, a strategy that has contributed to her organization’s impressive growth. She’s also willing to think differently about care delivery. Under her leadership, the specialty pharmacy pioneered an innovative care model that is focused on partnering with providers to act as an extension of their practice.
Ratliff believes that she was destined to join this line of work, and her advice to other future leaders is to always let concern for the patient guide your decisions. In her words, “if you put patients and their best interests at the heart of everything you do, there is no question that you can succeed.”
Suzette DiMascio, president/CEO, CSI Specialty Group
Suzette DiMascio believes that health care, teamed with a strong servant leadership mindset, has always been part of her DNA. In fact, she wouldn’t change anything about her career path, despite any obstacles she’s faced because it’s led her to where she is today.
It’s easy to see why, as that trajectory included senior leadership roles at prestigious organizations in the specialty pharmacy and biotech sectors, including Pfizer, NMC Home Infusion, and Nestle Clinical Nutrition. DiMascio has also been integral in the start-up of many national sites, including Aetna Specialty Pharmacy, Humana’s Right Source Specialty Pharmacy, NMHC Mail Order, and Kedrion BioPharma.
DiMascio is the founder and President/CEO of CSI Specialty Pharmacy Group, which was recently named one of Consulting Magazine’s Fastest Growing Firms and was chosen as one of Goldman Sachs’ Top Growing Businesses. Her vision for creating this organization was to bring together the best and brightest in the pharmacy industry to do great things that make a difference in the lives of patients.
In her own words, “If we can contribute to improving that patient journey every day, even if it’s just by a small amount, I consider that a successful day.”
DiMascio also contributes her expertise outside of her organization’s 4 walls—acting as an influential contributor and thought leader in the specialty pharmacy and biotech community. This includes serving as a member of the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy, a founding member of NASP, and an active member in the Women Business Leaders of US HealthCare Industry, Healthcare Business Women’s Association, Biotechnology Industry Organization, and the Women’s Business Enterprise Council.
She’s also the founder of Women in Specialty Pharmacy, a group she launched in partnership with the NASP. DiMascio goal was to form an organization that would serve as a catalyst for women with similar aspirations, in order to guide, inspire, and endorse their growth in the industry.
Adding to her impressive credentials, DiMascio is also a pioneer in the disease management and tele-health industry and actually holds a patent in this area. Balancing all of these aspects of her busy life is certainly no easy task, but one she relishes as all these aspects of her career align with the goal of improving patient health.
Some of the most valuable advice DiMascio gives to individuals looking to grow into leadership roles within specialty pharmacy is to learn from those who have blazed the trail before them. This involves building a strong network and then asking questions, taking notes, and learning from their experiences.
According to DiMascio, learning these lessons from the trials of others can help people succeed with a lot less headache and heartbreak. At the same time, she recommends never losing sight of the fact that everything we do in this industry impacts someone’s life, either positively or negatively. DiMascio has lived by that guiding principle throughout her career, and attributes both her personal and professional growth to this mindset.
We hope that you were inspired by these stories of women who have emerged as true leaders in every sense of the word. If you have benefited from the mentorship and support of individuals like these in your own career, perhaps it’s time to pass it on to another young professional. Or if you’re new to specialty pharmacy, reach out to someone who has the career you want and ask them to share their own wisdom and experience. Only by working together and learning from our past will we be able to lead this industry into a sustainable, successful future.