The rise of the chief pharmacy officer

Pharmacy leaders have already cracked the code of hospital C-suites, but increasingly, they're entering executive positions across health systems. 

Most hospitals employ a pharmacy director, and some health systems have promoted employees to become chief pharmacy officers — a term created in 2000 to equate pharmacy executives to chief nursing, medical and information officers, according to a 2022 article from the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. 

"What distinguishes the pharmacy executive from the established director of pharmacy position is the increased breadth and depth of the involvement in the health system's strategic planning and decision-making processes at the most senior levels," the ASHP said. 

This isn't the standard for all health systems, but the wave is rising. Recently, Philadelphia-based Penn Medicine and Richmond, Va.-based VCU Health appointed their first system-wide chief pharmacy officers. 

Pharmacy departments are the second- or third-highest expense for health systems because of rising drug costs, according to Michael Roussos, president of VCU Medical Center. He told Becker's this heavy financial footprint, along with the complexities of mail-order medication services, requires a system-wide pharmacy executive. 

A health system's chief pharmacy officer doesn't only direct pharmacy staff, drug supply and medication management, according to the ASHP. They also lead cost-effective strategies; collaborate with top finance, medicine and nursing leaders; cultivate a healthy workforce culture; and spearhead new pharmacy automation and technology programs. 

Compared to the jump from pharmacy director to chief pharmacy officer, even fewer pharmacy leaders have become CEOs — a pipeline that typically starts with COOs. A few outlier examples are Montez Carter, PharmD, president and CEO of Trinity Health of New England in Hartford, Conn., and Wendy Horton, PharmD, CEO of UVA Health University Medical Center in Charlottesville, Va. 

For others wanting to leap from chief pharmacy officer to other C-suite roles, Dr. Horton and Dr. Carter recommend showcasing strong leadership and transferable skills from pharmacy work.

"As we grow in job responsibilities, our leadership and emotional intelligence capabilities become more critical than our technical capabilities," Dr. Carter told Becker's. "Senior executives need to be strong communicators, coaches and conflict managers. The development of these skills is critical for success in career advancement."

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