Community care at the black-owned Othello Station Independent Pharmacy
by Amanda Ong
Ahmed Ali came to Seattle’s southeast New Holly neighborhood in 1998 with his family as Somali refugees. Twenty years later, in 2018, Ali opened the Othello Station pharmacy in the same neighborhood. It’s one of the only black-owned independent pharmacies in Seattle. And unlike large drugstore chains, Othello Station Pharmacy offers a community-based approach and understanding of the maze of the healthcare system.
“I ran a Walgreens for a while, and just decided I really wanted to do something different, because I saw a lot of disparity in access, availability, and resources for a lot of people. of the black population of Southeast Seattle and South King. county,” Ali said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “To really reduce the disparities when it comes to blacks and browns, I think the easiest and fastest way to address these issues is through community health systems.”
Racial disparities in health care in the United States are long-standing and well-documented. While whites maintain better access to insurance and better health outcomes, blacks and browns are more likely to be uninsured and lack access to hospitals and healthcare providers in proximity. The health consequences of these disparities are glaring: the maternal mortality rate of black women is three times higher than that of white women and black infant mortality is twice that of white babies. Black people also experience higher rates of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, not to mention how various social factors, such as socioeconomic inequalities and education levels, can further affect health outcomes.
Independent pharmacies are often overlooked as a community solution to alleviating health and healthcare disparities. Many people avoid independent pharmacies because they fear these places won’t carry the prescriptions they need. But Ali assures potential customers that the pharmacy at Othello station goes through the same wholesalers and gets the same supplies as any pharmacy in the chain.
Additionally, friendly community relationships between a pharmacy and its neighbors can encourage more mindful and informed healthcare choices. Ali stressed early on the need to make vaccines available in Southeast Seattle, with pop-up sites and a COVID-19 response team to dispel misinformation about the vaccine, especially in immigrant communities. who may struggle to navigate health systems. King County has seen major racial disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths, and Washington has seen slower vaccine rollout in BIPOC communities.
Since January 2021, the pharmacy at Othello station has vaccinated nearly 17,000 people, according to Ali. The pharmacy has two clinics a day and works with Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to vaccinate students. As of December 2021, nearly 7,000 students have been vaccinated through this process.
“I think resources and accessibility are the biggest challenges our communities face in South Seattle. Many families don’t have the luxury of sitting down and refreshing the screen for a date,” Ali said. “And they can just come to the pharmacy, get vaccinated, and not have a lot of hassle to go through. Culturally, I can talk to a lot of families who say they don’t want to get vaccinated or they don’t want their child vaccinated. And I can say that we all got vaccinated when we were in another country, that’s fine. I can relate to them in a very simple way that another person might not be able to relate to. And then we protect the community.
Arriving in the United States as a refugee, Ali realized early on what an adjustment it was to move not only to a new country but also to a new continent, where linguistically and culturally everything is new. Then trying to navigate a radically different healthcare system that most American-born people find difficult to understand is a nearly impossible task.
Corporate chain pharmacies can often make this problem worse. Ali points out that most pharmacy chains have a simple system for people to pick up their prescriptions and leave, prioritizing fast turnaround times over patient care. Patients don’t know pharmacists and pharmacists don’t know patients. Staff are often not from the neighborhood and cannot identify with patients culturally, linguistically or even as a neighbour. Independent pharmacies have a greater opportunity to act as sites of community care – where staff know and can continually help improve the lives of their patients.
“I think knowing and having that relationship with your pharmacist and your pharmacy team, that in itself is a mental health factor that we don’t consider,” Ali said. “It’s so different when you’re comfortable, when you know you’ll be taken care of.”
Ali says his staff of 10, down from two in 2018, is one of the most diverse pools of pharmacy staff in southern King County. They speak eight different languages among them including English, Somali, Swahili, Arabic and Tagalog. Additionally, Ali was able to hire in the neighborhood, which maintained economic opportunities for growth and impact in the South End. Three of its pharmacists, from Hungary, Nigeria and Ethiopia, were practicing pharmacists before immigrating to the United States, where their pharmacist licenses were not recognized. Through their work at the Othello Station pharmacy, they have gained the experience necessary to pass the pharmacy board exam and are now able to practice in the community.
With the help of independent pharmacies, health outcomes can improve community-wide. Ali launched a delivery service during the pandemic that nearly 80% of its customers use. His staff came at irregular hours to make sure people didn’t miss their medicine. They have helped patients who are confused by their doctor’s prescriptions and don’t speak English. They called clinics and spoke with patients in medical conversations. They have done informal drug therapy management, where they make sure older people, especially those who don’t speak English, don’t take too many drugs. These services are ones you won’t find in corporate chain pharmacies.
The Othello Station Pharmacy has also been able to mentor local students who want to become pharmacists and who otherwise would not likely have the opportunity to apprentice as a pharmacist in a chain pharmacy. “I think a problem that the community often faces is the lack of qualified healthcare professionals who are like them,” Ali said. “And that’s why I’m always focused on mentorship and trainings for young people, making sure families are connected through mental health services, pregnancy programs, etc.” It’s very empowering for people to walk in proudly, knowing that a member of their community actually runs and owns this independent pharmacy.
Ali hopes the work of the pharmacy can inspire a new generation of black healthcare professionals that will lead to a future of more black-owned hospitals and clinics. For him, this is one of the best ways to reduce disparities as we increase cultural understanding in health. “It’s one thing to tell a patient, ‘Okay, take this medicine three times a day,’ and they walk away. But many factors can prevent this patient from taking the drug three times a day,” Ali said. “What kind of diet do they follow with the drugs? Will they come into conflict? Is it the month of Ramadan, where they are not going to eat all day, and this medicine is asking them to eat? How do you handle this?
For now, Othello Station Pharmacy is incredibly proud to have survived the pandemic and to enter its third year as a BIPOC-owned company. It was also recently recognized as Washington State’s Most Innovative Pharmacy by the Washington State Pharmacy Association. In the future, Ali hopes they can increase accessibility by expanding staff, hours, and possibly even more locations in southeast Seattle. Further down the line, Ali would like to create a side urgent care service and medication management, counseling sessions and education sessions on an ongoing basis.
“Our goal has been to ensure that the system serves the community and that the community benefits from the resources available,” Ali said. “So I would encourage people to support independent pharmacies, small businesses, so we can continue to thrive and serve our communities, especially the people of Southeast Seattle.”
You can find more information about vaccines and reminders available through Othello Station Pharmacy by calling them at (206) 620-2400. Visits without an appointment are accepted.
Amanda Ong (she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnic and Racial Studies.
📸 Featured Image: Pharmacist Dr Ahmed Ali helps a customer at the Othello station pharmacy. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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