You probably have never considered your local pharmacy to be a community center. But that’s exactly what class of 2008 WSU PharmD graduate Ahmed Ali wanted to create when he started his own pharmacy in the southside of Seattle three years ago. Ali’s Othello Station Pharmacy serves the predominantly East African and Somali community in Rainier Valley. It is also the community in which Ali grew up after relocating to Seattle from Somalia in 1998 at the age of 17.
“It was a completely different world and different language. I had to do a lot of learning, and my parents were the driving force for me to pursue pharmacy. They wanted me to succeed and not waste time,” he says of his upbringing. “I knew at a young age, growing up in refugee camps, that to live a comfortable life, education was the only way out.”
Ali says that patients don’t only go to his pharmacy to seek help on medical conditions, or fill their prescriptions, but also to seek translations to understand medical bills or communications from health care providers. “If we can’t help them, then we send them to the right place. We help [our customers] make appointments and talk to other health providers so they get the support they need,” says Ali.
“We treat people with respect and dignity, and don’t want people to just grab their medicine and go. We spend a lot of time in communication and counseling patients. I attended a really good institution that taught me how to be a good pharmacist and how to think outside the box. The best place I could go was to help people who are underserved,” adds Ali when reflecting on why he started his pharmacy. For Ali, the most important aspect in running his business and a philosophy he preaches to pharmacy students across the country is to connect with the people in their communities.
We treat people with respect and dignity, and don’t want people to just grab their medicine and go. We spend a lot of time in communication and counseling patients.
Ali credits the group of Vietnamese pharmacists in the Seattle area with helping him to understand the value of community connection. As he prepared to open his own independent pharmacy to serve the East African and Somali diaspora in Seattle, he consulted with immigrant pharmacists and health care professionals in the Seattle area for advice. “Public health is a passion,” says Ali, “But still the pharmacy delivery was missing—so that’s when I decided to open a pharmacy.”
Ali says that having pharmacies that support underserved communities is a vital solution for public health problems ailing various communities. In the East African and Somali community, many of the new immigrants in the area have a completely different lifestyle than where they originated from in Africa. The abundance of food, lack of exercise, or just getting settled into a new country means that many of the new immigrants suffer from chronic health problems including diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, stress, anxiety and depression. His team of eight employees speak eight different languages, and pride themselves in taking the time to communicate care to their patients.
“We put a lot of effort in prevention,” Ali says, “We have to explain that when you have chronic diseases you need to keep taking medicine, and that concept is very foreign to a lot of our customers.”
Ali also established the Somali Health Board to address some of the chronic health problems in his community. In addition to supporting wellness programs, advocacy, and community-based research, the nonprofit has been integral in COVID-19 vaccination efforts and education. Ali has posted videos of himself receiving the vaccine and hosted webinars on how the pandemic has impacted the Somali and immigrant community.
According to Ali, the Somali and other immigrant communities face unique hurdles in getting access to the vaccine as many work in the service industry such as daytime shifts at markets and stores, or as Uber drivers. “These people don’t have the luxury of going online to make vaccination appointments—particularly seniors who don’t have access to the internet,” says Ali. As a result, his nonprofit has arranged to work with seniors to get vaccinated, administering 500-600 doses each weekend.
So far, his pharmacy has vaccinated over 6,000 people—predominantly people of color– since they began receiving doses on February 13.
Ali says his next feat is to have a large impact on the pharmacy profession and change some of the misperceptions about health care providers. “We should be seen as solution makers and individuals who are connected to the community.”