Good medicine

New VCU pharmacy dean prepares students for a changing health care landscape

Debora Timms | 1/26/2023, 6 p.m.
Now in its 125th year, the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy has seen countless number of graduates enter pharmacy ...
Dr. Ogbonna

Now in its 125th year, the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy has seen countless number of graduates enter pharmacy careers and practices.

As the school’s newest dean, Kelechi C. Ogbonna, wants today’s students to be even more prepared to thrive as “leaders and change agents in an ever-evolving health care landscape.”

“Pharmacy touches every aspect of health care,” Dr. Ogbonna said in recent interviews with the Richmond Free Press. “Our health care systems are fractured in many ways, but pharmacy can be part of filling in the gaps.”

That disparities that exist in the system was something Dr. Ogbonna said he came to understand at an early age. Born in Philadelphia to Nigerian parents, he grew up with his three younger sisters in South Jersey. During one of his grandfather’s occasional visits, he suffered a medical emergency.

“A medication misadventure had some serious consequences,” Dr. Ogbonna recalled. “It was implanted in me early on that while medications can have great benefits, they can also cause great problems.”

That memory surely played a role in his undergraduate choice of pre-pharmacy with a chemistry major at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. After graduating in 2007, he entered the program at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences with the idea of becoming a community pharmacist. He soon learned that there were other opportunities within pharmacy, and decided that a residency would lead to other possibilities.

After completing his doctor of pharmacy in 2010, Dr. Ogbonna began a one-year pharmacy practice residency at West Haven VA Medical Center in Connecticut. He discovered his passion for geriatrics, staying another year to complete a geriatric pharmacy residency before coming to VCU as an assistant professor in 2012.

“I spent time at the VA and time at Yale. I was in the same city assessing two very different patient populations,” Dr. Ogbonna said. “[I saw how] health care looks very different depending on who you are and what you have access to. That caused me to think critically about how I wanted to apply my skillset, to help patients and meet them where they are.”

VCU provided that opportunity. He helped cre- ate the Richmond Health and Wellness Program and became the founding director of the school’s postgraduate geriatric residency program.

His move in 2016 to become the associate dean of admissions and student services and his appointment as interim and then permanent dean in the School of Pharmacy last year is just another way to continue that work. This time by helping students, including more underrepresented minori- ties, to find their career goals in pharmacy. He wants more pathway programs from middle school through high school and the collegiate level that put pharmacy forward as a career option for students who may not have considered it before.

“One of the things that I think differentiates our program from other schools of pharmacy nationwide, is that our students go and work in a variety of different settings,” Dr. Ogbonna said. “There are pharmacists working with the FDA, in veterinary practices, at insurance companies and nursing homes and hospitals.

“Every specialty you can have in medicine, you can also have in pharmacy. So there are emergency room pharmacists, critical care phar- macists, transplant pharmacists,” Dr. Ogbonna explained. “Pharmacists are anywhere medications or medication decisions need to be made.”

This passion for the profession is appreciated by VCU students such as Erika Nixon-Lambert.

“Dr. O gave me a roadmap to pursue a career in pharmacy. He suggested that I meet with other pharmacy programs to see what roadmap they would offer,” the 2026 doctor of pharmacy candidate wrote in an email.

She took his advice and made the decision to complete her graduate studies at VCU.

Fellow students’ emails offered similar praise. Fourth-year Pharm.D. student Danielle Holdren said that Dr. Ogbonna will “continue to positively impact the field of pharmacy for years to come.” Third-year student Paul Massawe also added it was “powerful to see and witness daily representation of a fellow African man thriving in the profession of pharmacy.”

Representation is one of the areas Dr. Ogbonna has worked to strengthen within the School of Pharmacy. Between 2014 and 2020, the school’s Pharm.D. cohort of underrepresented minorities more than doubled to 30 percent. In addition, attrition rates dropped and student satisfaction, pharmacy licensing exam scores and graduate residency acquisition rates all increased.

Mr. Massawe made note of Dr. Ogbonna’s commitment to “building a positive culture around the school by supporting and prioritizing students well-being.”

Dr. Ogbonna says there are many aspects that can affect recruitment efforts and student outcomes. He refers to these as the “social deter- minants of academic success,” noting that while academic preparation and ability may spring to mind, varied factors such as finances and housing, as well as unexpected circumstances like family emergencies or the pandemic play a role too.

“Until we’ve unpacked that, we are often going to find ourselves having a fairly homogenous student population and a homogenous health care workforce,” Dr. Ogbonna said. “And so we’re trying to peel back the layers to think about what are the barriers for students being able to progress in a meaningful way.

He has worked to help create and expand student resources at VCU for lodging, scholarships and career placement assistance, as well as a student success emergency fund.

This is important to student retention and success rates, but also to Dr. Ogbonna who says the students are the best part of his job. He continues to teach an undergraduate class and says the interaction helps to keep him grounded.

“The important part of my journey has been thinking critically about the folks that I interact with, the folks that I serve ... these are some of the things I’m really proud of. Titles are not really important, it’s the impact that matters.”

Editor’s note: Some recorded interview notes were provided for this article by the estate of Free Press writer Charles Taylor, who unexpectedly died shortly after speaking with Dr. Ogbonna.