Pharmacy student hopes to serve in rural community

Heather Hembree credits UofSC with preparing her to make an impact

Like many University of South Carolina students, Heather Hembree recently saw her post-graduation plans take an unexpected turn.

The College of Pharmacy graduate student, who is graduating this month, learned that her board tests might be canceled because of the COVID-19 threat.

“Originally, I hoped that I would be able to sit for the boards this summer. Some of the more recent appointments were canceled due to COVID-19.”

Despite the setback, Hembree plans to eventually practice pharmacy in a rural community similar to her hometown of Ware Shoals, South Carolina — a small town near Greenwood and part of the Old 96 district.

“My bread and butter is the community clinic setting. I would like to open up a pharmacy, especially in my hometown,” Hembree says.

Many communities in South Carolina are rural, and the need for health care workers in these areas has become even more evident as COVID-19 has strained an already stressed health care system.

Hembree sees opportunities for pharmacists to help with the strain facing health care providers.

"Many national organizations have been advocating for pharmacists to be allowed to play an even more integral part in the health care team during this time,” Hembree says.

In particular, she sees a potential opportunity for compounding pharmacists to help fill the need for essential medications during the COVID-19 crisis.

Hembree has completed pharmacy rotations in rural and more populated settings and has seen firsthand the health care needs of rural communities.

“The main difference I see is the means to get to a health care provider or pay for medication. A lot of rural areas — not everywhere, but generally — have low-income populations and don’t have the means to purchase the best medication for their illness or for their disease,” she says.

I love seeing when a patient has that light bulb moment and it clicks.

Heather Hembree, College of Pharmacy

Hembree says, as a pharmacist, the next step is to provide an affordable medication when possible and prescribe medication that is evidence-based. Her goal is for the patient to use the medication that has been prescribed.

“If a patient tries to fill a prescription and it ends up being $1,000, they are just not going to get it and the provider probably won’t even know. They also may not report they did not pick up the medication if they are embarrassed,” she says.

During her rotations, Hembree also noted the importance of taking time to explain medication to patients.

“Ultimately, the patient will have better compliance and take the medication if they understand how it works and why it’s beneficial to them,” she says. “That’s going to take a lot more time to explain, which I don’t mind at all. I enjoy that patient interaction. I love seeing when a patient has that light bulb moment and it clicks.”

Hembree also noticed factors that can delay care to rural residents.

“It’s just a lot harder to get medical supplies out to some rural areas — even something as simple as the truck driver can’t find where you are located. Things like these can delay care.”

Transportation issues for patients could also delay rural residents from speaking with health care workers.

Hembree is optimistic that health care practices implemented during COVID-19 will make telehealth more common, allowing patients easier access to providers.

“I have definitely seen a shift to telemedicine in the past few weeks within the health care field as a whole. As patients are more confined to their homes, this invites the opportunity for medical doctors and potentially pharmacists to meet with patients via video call or telephone call to discuss their needs,” Hembree says.

“I think that this will be one major way that health care evolves once the threat and panic from this virus has subsided. The opportunity for telemedicine is vast, and I believe that it will allow patients more ease of access to providers, especially those patients who are from a rural area.”

Hembree is ready to put her training and education into practice in an area where it is much needed. She credits South Carolina and her professors for preparing her.

“I’ve always dreamed of coming to the University of South Carolina. Once I got in, I didn’t look back, I was so excited,” says Hembree.

The College of Pharmacy’s ability to allow students to focus on rural health was another point that Hembree appreciated. 

“I’ve had a great experience. Everybody in the College of Pharmacy is amazing ... we have so many different opportunities. I haven’t heard of any other pharmacy students I’ve been on rotation with say they have anything similar. This truly was a unique experience.”

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