Pharmacy Ambassadors Program Assists Resettled Refugees

Pharmacy Ambassadors Program Assists Resettled Refugees

By Sheridan Hendrix
Outreach and Engagement Communications Intern

When Helen Kim was placed at a Kroger Pharmacy off Morse Road to help create a community engagement program in 2013, she quickly learned about one of the pharmacy's major issues.

Initially, staff at the pharmacy told Kim, who at the time was a fourth-year pharmacy student, that when refugees living in the area would come in, there seemed to be a communication barrier. As Kim began to investigate further though, she realized there was a more complex issue than just a language differencethe refugees simply did not know how to navigate an American pharmacy.

"What I learned was that the communication barrier was most important, but then the patients not knowing anything about the system was really a problem," Kim said. "Even if the language barrier is dissolved, if the medication is picked up or dispensed, they don't know how to properly take it."

Realizing the problem, Kim began reaching out to community partners for help, which she found in the refugee resettlement groups US Together, Inc and Community Refugee & Immigration Services (CRIS). With their help, Kim began interviewing refugees that visited the pharmacy to understand their struggles. One man Kim interviewed said he stood around the pharmacy counter once for two hours just watching others pick up their prescriptions to learn for himself.

Struck by their stories, Kim created Pharmacy Ambassadors, a pharmacy educational program for resettled refugees, in 2013. The program takes participants through a two and a half hour interactive program, teaching them how to navigate and familiarize themselves with the U.S. healthcare system.

Participants, who are recruited by resettlement agencies, are put in groups of five to 10 and are brought to the pharmacy itself for the program. Kim said the program is set up as more of a seminar than a formal lecture, allowing participants to ask questions throughout the presentation and encouraging discussion. Refugees also participate in activities to help them learn the material hands-on.

"We hand out different medication bottles and have them point out different areas. We have them role play different things like dropping off a prescription and picking up a medication or providing the right ID or right information," Kim said. "Those are all more like move around and stand up and let's do the activity together instead of trying to either question them or giving them quizzes."

The program also includes a tour of the pharmacy so participants can familiarize themselves with the different aisles, as well as the pharmacy counter and drop-off window.

Kim said a big hit during the tour is the blood pressure machine, something that enables the participants to share with others.

"A lot of people get excited (about the blood pressure machine), they even tell us later on that they bring their friends and families to test it out and they become the educators, teaching their communities once again because now they know how to use the pharmacy," Kim said.

Kim, who now lives in California, realized that with her being halfway across the country she would need some help running Pharmacy Ambassadors. With that in mind, Chelsea Pekny came on board.

Pekny, assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy and advisor to Pharmacy Ambassadors, said she sees the program as a learning experience not only for the participants, but also for the student groups and faculty involved. Pekny, who practiced pharmacy in Kenya for several years, said she can see the similarities between refugees assimilating there and in America.

"(Pharmacy Ambassadors is) something so helpful and you don't think about it unless you've been faced with that... and see those challenges in (your) day to day," Pekny said. "You can't just go to a pharmacy here (in the United States) and say, 'I feel sick, give me an antibiotic.' There's a process, but this is still where to get your medicine. The pharmacy is not really well understood."

Kim said that the program itself has been expanding, that pilot programs are now also in Cleveland, and organizations and colleges in Kentucky, Arizona, and Texas have taken interest in the program. Ohio State's Office of International Affairs has also implemented a similar program for its international students.

Pekny said she views Pharmacy Ambassadors as a way to welcome new Americans to the United States in a way that only Ohio State can.

"People from Ohio come from all different countries, come from all different places, they speak different, they sound different," Pekny said. "It's a good way to engage with people and welcome them to Ohio and have that Midwest spirit. Ohio State (is) kind of that driving force for delivering care in novel programs to all new Ohioans and Ohioans in general."

Kim said that the greatest impact she has seen is in the sense of community that has come from the relationship between Pharmacy Ambassadors and its community partners.

"For us at Kroger Pharmacy, we did not have the opportunity until then to work with immigrant populations or refugee populations," Kim said. "Now we are actually making an entire community when it comes to outreach, so I think that's really positive. It's a building block that can really be a step to other programs. I think that community building and forming that community is a very good start... And now we have the opportunity to reach out even more."

Program Website:

Contact for more information: Chelsea Pekny,