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Soft Skills for Pharmacists

Soft Skills for Pharmacists

Steph’s Note: After a couple months of hard hitting clinical posts, we’re taking a mini break and heading to the other side. The softer side, as you’ll see.

We have a special guest post that, if you’re smart (and you are because, well, you’re here), you’ll internalize, reflect on, and extrapolate to your futures. If you’ve ever been through any interview, whether pharmacy or non-pharmacy based, you know that a large portion of what you’re asked has nothing to do with which antibiotic you’d pick. Rather, you’re asked questions about YOU. How you handle things. And people. And situations. Which brings us back to the softer side of pharmacy.

And with that, I’m going to let Cory take the stage and introduce himself!

Greetings tl;dr fans! My name is Cory Jenks, and when I’m not guest posting on awesome pharmacy websites, I am a practicing pharmacist, inhabiting the world of ambulatory care.

However, amb care is not my true specialty. Rather, crowd management, object work, and improvised rapping are more my speed. You see, I have been a practicing pharmacist since getting my PharmD in 2011, but I’ve been a practicing improv comedian since embarking on my (very unofficial) improv comedy “Master’s Degree” in 2013. Since that time, I have taught, coached, and performed improv for thousands of people.   

You won’t find me at my own website or on Saturday Night Live…yet. But feel free to say hi on LinkedIn,  Twitter @pharmacomedian, and on Instagram at, you guessed it, @pharmacomedian.

I am here today to talk about skills often sorely lacking in pharmacists, other healthcare providers, and, if you ask me, most folks in general. The ever ambiguous: soft skills.

First things first, I think we should set the stage and lay out the difference between what a “hard skill” is versus a “soft skill.”

What are Hard Skills?

Hard skills are specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured, such as typing, writing, math, reading, and the ability to use software programs. Also, according to the philosopher Napoleon Dynamite, these include things like nun chuck skills, bow hunting skills, and computer hacking skills.

The gauntlet of pharmacy school, residency (for some), and a working career is a blueprint for developing hard skills. Heck, hard skills are literally a pharmacy specialty.

Sure, you will certainly need to establish at some point in your pharmacy future that you have the skills. The hard skills. Usually by taking some tests and/or discussing patients and therapies with practitioners.

However, at what point do you establish those elusive “soft skills”?

What are Soft Skills?

Soft skills, by contrast, are less concrete and harder to quantify. These include things such as etiquette, playing well with others in the sandbox, and listening and engaging in small talk.  I’m not sure I can speak for all pharmacists, but I am almost certain none of us took an elective in small talk back in pharmacy school.

Blending Hard and Soft Skills

With these definitions out of the way, we can really dive in to comparing how the two types of skills complement each other, and then get you, the pharmacist professional, on the road to soft skills-ville.  

In a broad sense, soft skills are more about the “who” of someone rather than the “how much they know.” The reality, as most pharmacists who spent hours cooped up in a library (or a few minutes on tl;dr)  learning about kinetics realize, is that we can learn, practice, and measure hard skills over time. You get an A on the exam. You pass your boards. You get all the questions right on your Continuing Education credits. Boom. Objectively more intelligent. You are now “officially” a wise and effective pharmacist.

Not so fast, my friend! (Are we friends yet? I’d like to think we at least could be if you’ve read this far).

Don’t believe me?  Straight from the pages of the Journal of the American College of Clinical Pharmacy comes a paper that says maybe the elusive, holy grail of pharmacy students, the GPA, may not be the best measure after all of a residency candidate’s knowledge and skills.  What are we undervaluing?

I would absolutely avoid grapefruit with my simvastatin if counseled by RoboPharmacist.  (Image)

I would absolutely avoid grapefruit with my simvastatin if counseled by RoboPharmacist. (Image)

Things like “work ethic, passion, adaptability, leadership, research experience, communication skills, professionalism, cultural competency, and personality fit.” Hmm, sure looks like a whole lot of hard-to-measure soft skills to me.

Maybe a new generation of 4.0-spewing “robopharmacists” isn’t as great as we dreamed?

This is exactly why most residency programs and job interviews consist of so many behavioral questions!

Rather than focusing on what you know, possible employers want to see how you communicate your past experiences. Because how you’ve done previously is a pretty darn good clue to what you’ll do in the future when faced with similar circumstances. And your soft skills are the backbones of your answers.

(Check out behavioral interviewing…and tl;dr’s own Interview Mastery for more tips!)

Have I convinced you of the value of soft skills yet? Maybe I have, but now comes some work to get us up to speed on what we can do to fix up our soft skills. The challenging thing is, especially for us mostly left-brained pharmacists who are used to be being measured by standard testing, that soft skills are harder to objectively measure if we are “getting better” at them. Beyond the measuring of them, the question is how can we even learn and change our own soft skill set?

Soft Skills: A Non-Ranked List

Y'all ready for this? (Video)

If it seems like the soft skill set is a nebulous, un-measurable, yet important set of abilities that are easy to define but hard to measure and obtain, you would likely be correct. Fortunately, I scoured the internet from top to bottom, east to west, and light to dark (suggestion: do NOT go to the dark part of the internet) to research, review, and distill what I think are the most crucial soft skills we as pharmacists need to have for success.  

Here’s what I found.

Communication

You’re a tl;dr reader, so I know you’re highly intelligent. However, no matter how much you know, your knowledge doesn’t mean anything unless you can effectively communicate that information in a clear, simple, succinct manner to a variety of audiences - both written and orally.

Beyond written and oral communication, it is important we are able to present professionally and competently, but most importantly, listen. Listening to our patients and other providers is crucial in getting the right information.

How good do you think our profession is? Or healthcare in general?

One source I came across noted that poor communication cost 1.7 billion dollars over a 4 year period. BILLION. (Not to mention the noted 2 THOUSAND lives. That’s a LOT of family members.)

The Joint Commission estimates that up to 80% of serious medical errors can be attributed to miscommunication.

Is that bad? It seems bad.

So let’s get to fixing that. Not to mention you will (absolutely) be asked at some point to discuss how you had to communicate a tough message to a coworker or how you dealt with conflict. These types of questions are all directly tied to your ability to communicate.

Flexibility/Adaptability

The great thing about the profession of pharmacy is that everything always goes exactly to plan: our coworkers all show up on time (or at all), patients do exactly what we ask them, doctors and nurses respect and heed our advice regularly, and our computers, printers, and fax servers are always 100% reliable.

If this sounds like your work environment, congratulations, you are living in a land I like to call “Pharmatopia.” For those of us living in the real world, we just laughed. Out loud. Until we couldn’t breathe. Clearly, our best-laid plans don’t always come to fruition.

It is one thing to learn kinetics, anticoagulation management, or infectious diseases in the comfort of the classroom. It is another to apply these (hard) skills in an ever-challenging and ever-changing work environment. The happiest and most effective pharmacists are the ones who can roll with the punches, learn to adapt to new environments, and are not phased (much) by changes (both big and small).

Teamwork

Whether  pharmacists like it or not, our ability to get along with other people and work as a team is critical. Most pharmacy jobs require us to work as a team with pharmacy technicians, nurses, doctors, dieticians, and other non-clinical staff.

And guess what, we’re even on a team with our patients! (Yes, even those patients who may be grouchy or non-adherent.) We are STILL on their team.

My unofficial opinion is that any pharmacist can endure a less than ideal job for a day, week, or even year if you work with an outstanding team. The best and brightest pharmacist who cannot cooperate, interact, or generally coexist with other team members will not be a valuable employee.  

This reality is that, even if you aren’t the smartest pharmacist (looking at myself in the mirror), you will likely be welcomed if you are an outstanding team player.

Positive Attitude

We have all worked with someone who thinks it’s their job to complain and dwell on the worst parts of their job. Meanwhile, while doing their negative cave dwelling, they can bring the mood down for an entire pharmacy team.

We call these people Debbie Downers. Please don’t be a Debbie Downer.

Having a positive attitude can be easier said than done, especially in the often frustrating world of healthcare. However, a positive attitude will make you the pharmacist others want to work with, the one that others see on the schedule and get excited  to work with.

You know what happens when others are excited to work with you and your positive attitude?

You improve your communication, flexibility, and teamwork (do these seem familiar?).  

Empathy

We’ll end with empathy. However, this discussion must begin with a definition of empathy versus sympathy.

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves the ability to see someone else’s situation from their perspective and share their emotions, including, if any, the person’s distress.

Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see them better off or happier.

The big difference is that sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or emotion.

Why is empathy important? Because it can help us connect with our patients, show them that we care (you do care, right?), and communicate more effectively.

It can be easy after a long day on the “pharm” to forget that every patient we take care of has a history, family, motivation for their action, and a general “why” in life. If we can empathize with what they are feeling in the moment and share in their experience, we can then proceed more effectively in a plan that will be not only helpful for, but also more likely accepted by, our patients.

Sympathy-that sucks. Empathy-this really sucks for me too.  (Image)

Sympathy-that sucks. Empathy-this really sucks for me too. (Image)

How to Develop Your Soft Skills

Alright, we have defined hard vs. soft skills, gone over a bunch of what I think are important soft skills, and even got empathy and sympathy all squared away.

Now for the easy part: sharpening those soft skills! No problem, right? Just follow a defined, stepwise approach, much like pharmacy school, and you too will have the softest of skills!

Unfortunately, it may not be that easy. Soft skills are short on hard answers. However, let me offer up several “soft skill hacks” to get to developing the softer side of you as a pharmacist.

Know Thyself

After reading this article, you are at least aware of some important soft skills to have. Excellent! It is probably time to look in the metaphorical mirror and take stock of what you think you do well, what you think you can improve upon, and what you have to gain by addressing your soft skill deficits.

Are you a great communicator? A terrible team player? A so-so empathizer? Ask yourself these questions. Answer honestly.

Then, take it a step further and ask those you work with, your managers, mentors, anyone who observes you in action. Find out what they think you do well and what you could improve upon.

Knowing where you stand and getting feedback are not bad things. If you’re not up to par on some pieces, that gives you #lifegoals. (And guess what - BAM - there’s another common source of interview questions.)

Communication

Communication comes in many forms: written, verbal, hilarious gifs. Almost all of those are critical for healthcare.

As I noted above, knowing yourself and what you do well is a great place to start. If you need to work on your written communication skills, I suggest start writing! Write in a journal everyday. Start a blog. Submit an article for the best pharmacy site on the internet. Just like any hard skill, the more you practice it, the better you will get at communicating your ideas.

If verbal communication is your weakness, there are options for you to improve as well. Remember that metaphorical mirror I suggested above? Well, start talking into an actual mirror. Does it seem silly? Of course it is, but it is a simple place to start practicing your verbal skills, and you will already know the audience.

Try recording video or audio of yourself communicating or speaking and listen to the patterns you pick up. It can be painful at first, but the camera doesn’t lie. Do you “um” a lot? Do you smack your lips? Do you let the other person speak? Hearing yourself can give you excellent insight in your verbal habit. Beyond those options, try taking a course in public speaking or look into Toastmasters to hone those verbal communication and presentation skills.

Attitude

The tough thing about soft skills is that they can be, as you may have discerned, sort of nebulous. How does one become more flexible and adaptable? A better team player? Just “having” a positive attitude?

I think part of the solution is having the mindset that there really are no guarantees in any given day. So much is up to chance (who calls out sick, what drug shortages affect us today, what is going through the mind of the patient in front of us), and we simply have to let go of those things which we cannot control.

This is easier said than done, of course, but it is my suggestion for a happier pharmacy life after 8 years.

Look for opportunities and interests outside of pharmacy (you should have interests outside pharmacy) to practice these skills in a lower risk environment than healthcare provides. For me, this means playing pickup basketball. For others, it could mean having a game night, sharing in a book club, or volunteering with an organization whose mission you care deeply about. All of these life experiences help us develop soft skills that we can then utilize in our pharmacy careers.

Empathy

This one may be the hardest to work towards. How are you supposed to feel what others are feeling?

It is not always easy to walk in another person’s shoes, but I implore you to try and to look past an angry patient at the counter, a grumpy nurse on the floor, or an irritated medical assistant on the phone and understand there is a person who may be having the worst day of their life. Understand they may be hurting deeply, and do your best to summon the best compassion you can to feel their plight. I will let this excellent video from the Cleveland Clinic try and explain my advice:

Everyone should watch this amazing video. More than once. (Video)

The Catch All of Soft Skills

If you remember all the way back to my introduction, I mentioned I do improv comedy. Now, I think all of the options I have provided to you are excellent ways to improve your soft skills. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t follow my biases and offer up the suggestion to try an improv class.

Improv can make you a better scientist. It can make you a better pharmacist. It will help develop all of these skills I discussed and more. Most importantly, it is a chance to have fun for a few hours a week, and who wouldn’t love more of that in life?

I hope you have found this information on soft skills valuable, and more importantly, that you take some of the tips offered and go and put them to practice.  The more you experience, the more you grow, the better caregiver you will be, and BONUS, the more you’ll have to discuss in interviews when asked about your behaviors.

The world needs smart pharmacists, but it also needs those smart pharmacists to communicate, work as a team, and empathize to provide the best care possible.

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