Inspirational Black Men and Women in Medicine: Charisse Johnson of Chicago State University College of Health Sciences and Pharmacy On 5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career In Medicine

Charisse Johnson

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Establish a network. The practice of pharmacy is more collaborative than ever. The health care sector, government, nonprofit and academic institutions are all increasingly working together on initiatives such as drug development and best standards of care. Forging relationships beyond your immediate sphere of influence can be a great way to continue to learn and advance skills and expertise.

In the United States today, black doctors are vastly underrepresented. Only 5% of physicians nationwide are black. Why is it so important to have better representation? What steps can be taken to fix this discrepancy? In this interview series, we are talking to successful black men and women in medicine about their career, their accomplishments, and how others may follow their path. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Charisse Johnson.

Charisse Johnson MS, PharmD, is the Associate Dean of Student Affairs/Dean of Students and Experiential Education and Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Chicago State University College of Health Sciences and Pharmacy. Dr. Johnson received both her Doctor of Pharmacy degree and Master of Science degree in Pharmacy Administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy (UIC-COP). Possessing formal teaching experiences in both didactic and experiential arenas with student pharmacists, pharmacy residents, and pharmacy technicians, Dr. Johnson has served in various capacities as a guest speaker, course instructor, and graduate teaching assistant lecturing on topics such as regulatory policy, patient safety, and the pharmacist’s role in community health.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago with my mom and younger sister, and I had what I would consider an uneventful childhood. After graduating from high school, I completed a couple years of pre-pharmacy coursework at Western Illinois University and then attended pharmacy school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I ended up going back to the University of Illinois at Chicago and earned my Master of Science degree in Pharmacy Administration. Since then, I have been in various pharmacy settings for the past 25 years of my career.

Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was 10 years old, I was hit by a car, and while I wasn’t severely hurt, I was quite rattled. I remember how the paramedics were able to comfort me and make a scary situation seem less scary, and I think that resonated with me more than I realized. Through middle school, I thought it would be really cool to be a paramedic when I grew up.

In high school, I had a conversation with my counselor about career paths, and I told the counselor I wanted to be an emergency medical technician or paramedic. The counselor told me that because I do so well in science and math courses, I should consider becoming a physician or going into medicine, but that didn’t really resonate with me. Then the counselor suggested pursuing pharmacy, and I could picture myself helping patients wisely use medications. I was then on the path to become a pharmacist. I ended up becoming extremely passionate about pharmacy, and it has been incredibly rewarding to serve others in this career and, in my current position, inspire and educate future generations of pharmacists.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman shared the quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Chicago State University’s President Zaldwaynaka Scott has also shared this quote with us, and these words of wisdom are particularly relevant in this conversation about black and brown and racial and ethnic representation in healthcare.

When you have a diverse workforce, it makes opportunities more accessible and relatable to those who are underrepresented in those professions. People of diverse backgrounds need to see people who look like them in professions in order to pursue those professions themselves.

When I think about my own journey, both personally and professionally, there have been a lot of people who saw potential in me when I didn’t really see it in myself. The high school counselor who pushed me to think beyond what I saw for myself; faculty members who encouraged me to pursue a career in higher education and to pursue graduate studies; family members, particularly my mother and grandmother who did not have advanced degrees but believed in me — all of these people encouraged me and I have been really appreciative of that.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The Covid-19 pandemic was an extremely interesting and challenging time for the profession. It magnified how critical pharmacists and health care workers are. Pharmacists were testing, screening, administering vaccines and even prescribing medications to mitigate Covid-19 infection. Pharmacists have been one of the most, if not the most, accessible health care providers throughout the pandemic.

Specifically at Chicago State University, despite shifting to a remote learning environment during the pandemic, many of our students worked as pharmacy technicians, and many of our pharmacy faculty were on the front lines. Our students, alumni and faculty were key in vaccination efforts across the Chicagoland area. Communities of color in particular were adversely affected by the pandemic. I was incredibly proud to work at an institution that stayed true on its commitment to helping the communities that many Chicago State University students come from.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable — Whatever the setting may be, when you’re growing yourself professionally, there is a never-ending journey to grow your skill set and improve. Sometimes this requires going outside of your comfort zone, but that is the best way to grow.
  2. Perseverance — Sometimes you need to do things beyond what you think you can do, and even if you fail, perseverance will take you to the next level and allow you to learn from those mistakes and get it right the next time.
  3. Self-Awareness — When you have true and insightful knowledge of yourself and your gifts, areas of opportunity and motivations, it allows you to be rooted in decision-making about your development, trajectory and how you choose to show up in the world.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. This might seem intuitive to you, but it would be helpful to articulate this expressly. Can you share three reasons with our readers why it’s really important for there to be more diversity in medicine?

It is estimated that racial and ethnic minorities contribute to about 39% of the U.S. population, and that percentage is projected to go up to at least 50% in the next 20 years. In contrast, when we look at racial and ethnic minority representation in medicine and pharmacy, there is a significant misalignment. Black people represent about 13% of the total U.S. population; however, only represent about 5.7% of physicians. In pharmacy specifically, it is estimated that only about 7% of pharmacists are black.

This is important to recognize because we know that communities of color have worse health outcomes when compared to the majority population. Black patients have lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality rates and higher cancer mortality rates. During the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a significant issue in the black community with vaccine hesitancy and higher risk of hospitalization and death.

One part of the solution is increasing accessibility to services and care for underrepresented and underserved communities. This includes making sure that we have the right facilities in our neighborhoods, the right mechanisms to pay for healthcare and good health insurance. We also need a diverse health care provider workforce who come from various backgrounds and can identify with patients. There is a notion of cultural concordance when the healthcare provider and the patient come from a similar cultural background. It has been demonstrated that when those two cultures align, it tends to result in better health outcomes for patients. I believe that is the principal reason why we want to make sure that we have a diverse healthcare workforce.

As things stand today, what are the main barriers for black men and women to enter the medical field?

There are two specific obstacles I’d like to discuss. One of those obstacles, particularly as it relates to pharmacy, is the lack of the awareness of the various opportunities and career paths that one can pursue with a doctor of pharmacy degree. Community pharmacy is considered the most typical kind of career path, but there are so many more options. Some of those options include:

  • Compounding — individualized and customized medication therapy and unique dosage forms
  • Regulatory pharmacy — helping to guide and shape public policy in the pharmaceutical field
  • Veterinary pharmacy — a unique aspect of care for pets and animals
  • Pharmaceutical Industry — Discovery, use and education of new, innovative medical treatment
  • Sub specialties — infectious disease pharmacy, pediatric pharmacy, emergency medicine pharmacy and more

Chicago State University recently launched our Make Pharm Your Future campaign with the goal of educating prospective students on the various career paths and opportunities in the pharmaceutical field.

The other major obstacle is the affordability of higher education, specifically advanced degrees. Tuition and fees are costly for all students, but especially for students who come from underrepresented backgrounds. Most students who pursue the doctor of pharmacy degree only qualify for loans because this is classified as a professional degree program. When you look at the high cost of education and factor in six to eight years of study, that can be a huge deterrent for a high schooler or a middle schooler who wants to graduate from high school and have a career rather quickly.

Personally, I considered the resource-intensive endeavor of earning this degree as a huge investment in myself, as well as my future and my earning potential. I have enjoyed a great return on that investment. However, I’m hopeful we can have meaningful and sustainable mechanisms to really lighten the loan and debt burden for students who do pursue these types of degrees.

From your perspective, can you share a few things that can be done by the community, society, or the government, to help remove those barriers?

As far as lack of awareness about the opportunities in pharmacy, there is a lot of work to be done to expose students to careers in pharmacy earlier and show them that it is an achievable and worthwhile career path. I believe the key is to create bridging programs to expose elementary-aged children, middle schoolers and high schoolers to careers in pharmacy. We have already seen success with these types of programs, but we need to be more intentional about how these programs are structured. We need to work hand-in-hand with students and their families so they can see what this career path looks like and understand that it is feasible. Bridging programs need to of course have a focus on STEM and building foundational math and science skills, but these programs also need to integrate dual credit and dual enrollment options to cut down on the number of college credits needed to apply for a doctor of pharmacy. Job shadowing, volunteer opportunities and internships are also important to integrate so students can see and feel firsthand what it would be like to be a pharmacist or other type of health care provider.

In terms of the affordability of pursuing a pharmacy degree, we need more public programs that help with loan forgiveness. Private and university scholarships are important, but a combination of public and private sector help to subsidize education is what is really needed.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started my career in medicine,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. My personal experience has been that challenges change you for the better. Challenges, hardship and adversity have been fertile opportunities for my greatest growth!
  2. Be curious. Learning continues throughout the journey; seek ways in which you can broaden your perspective.
  3. Prioritize well-being. There will be constant stressors, both personally and professionally. “Self-care isn’t always what feels good, but more so what is good for you.” Role modeling health and wellness for patients and those that you care for is key.
  4. The world keeps evolving, and you can learn to evolve with it. The pharmacy profession — like many others — has undergone massive changes in the past few years due to the rise in technology like AI and digital health, advances in treatment and even remote work, among others. Embracing those changes and evolving alongside the profession is a must to keep skills relevant.
  5. Establish a network. The practice of pharmacy is more collaborative than ever. The health care sector, government, nonprofit and academic institutions are all increasingly working together on initiatives such as drug development and best standards of care. Forging relationships beyond your immediate sphere of influence can be a great way to continue to learn and advance skills and expertise.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

To achieve my goal of increasing the number of underrepresented students in healthcare professions, I want to look for partners in both the public and private sector who are looking to partner with Chicago State University in meaningful ways to make pathway and bridging programs happen. For example, loan forgiveness and scholarships funded by the government are needed in the public sector. In the private sector, we need more employers that commit to practicing in underserved areas or in certain practice settings, and stipends for internships that can be used toward funding an individual’s education.

It is hard for the university to do this effectively on its own, but these partnerships open the door to reach many more prospective pharmacist students.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I don’t have a specific person, but I would like to start with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and National Association of Chain Drug Stores to have discussions about how we can help create a robust and diverse workforce together. Really, I want to have lunch with anyone who is willing to pull up their sleeves and is ready to invest resources to make change happen. We have a lot of untapped potential at Chicago State University, and with intentionality and investment, we can make a dent in diversifying our workforce in the pharmacy field.

How can our readers best continue to follow your work online?

Connect with me on LinkedIn, follow Chicago State University College of Health Sciences and Pharmacy on LinkedIn and visit