To get vaccines into arms in underserved communities, health-care providers need to meet people where they are.
Growing up in Port Angeles and on the historical lands of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, I became aware of some of the economic and health disparities associated with being Native American. When I was a School of Pharmacy student in the 1970s, I became involved in starting up the Seattle Indian Health Board Clinic under the mentorship of Donna Dockter, ’72. Then the Puyallup Tribe reached out and asked if I would help develop its clinic. For years after that, I have helped other tribal clinics start up and expand their services.
It’s all part of the same story. Through my work, I became more and more aware of the issues of inequity around access to health care. In 1996, the UW invited me back to campus to share my experience with pharmacy students. That eventually led me to become a clinical professor, a position from which I now facilitate connections between the school and communities of need—bringing pharmacy students and colleagues out into our communities to help provide health care.
In the 1990s, School of Pharmacy epidemiologist Jacqueline Gardner, ’80, and I shared concerns about the low immunization rates in rural, underserved and elderly communities in Washington state. We saw an opportunity. Together, we developed the country’s first community pharmacist immunization training program. It exploded on us. We found demand for training around the country. The UW School of Pharmacy has trained its students to administer vaccines, particularly to marginalized communities, ever since.
Initially, leaders in the fields of medicine and nursing resisted the idea of pharmacists providing direct patient care. But we persevered and learned a lot about being change agents. What we did was really more fundamental than just providing immunizations and contraception, it was a reimagination of what it means to access health care on a patient’s terms. You may recall, you had to make an appointment with your doctor to do many of these things. You had to take time off from work or school, and maybe wait weeks to get an appointment. What we did was lower the threshold of access by reaching people near their homes and on their life schedules, not on a medical clinic’s schedule.
Last summer, when we realized that we may have COVID-19 vaccines coming to market, I and my health sciences faculty colleagues and students decided to dedicate our next year to COVID vaccinations. Our Interprofessional Service Learning Committee (aka IP-SLAC) developed a COVID vaccination training boot camp, preparing students in pharmacy, medicine, nursing and dentistry to give COVID vaccines. Now hundreds of our UW health sciences students and faculty are out in our communities doing the work. Social work and public health students may not be able to administer the vaccines, but they help by educating vaccine-hesitant people and supporting vaccine delivery by handling administrative tasks.
We know that vaccines are the most successful tool we have for infectious disease prevention or reduction. In response to the current pandemic and in preparation for future pandemics, we need continued improvements in equitable access to clinical care services, particularly for underserved communities. We must better manage long-term health problems and extend medical care in ways that are more efficient, more convenient, more inclusive and more cost-effective.
As we have expanded vaccine delivery beyond doctors’ offices and into pharmacies, we can now move it further, meeting people in their workplaces, community centers and churches. We can do more to reach our underserved communities where and when it is easiest for them. Making lifesaving health care more accessible and more affordable must be our leading priority.