Partners in Community Health: Planning for a New USC Pharmacy in South Los Angeles

Soon after Vassilios Papadopoulos became dean of the USC School of Pharmacy in October 2016, he approached Raffi Svadjian, executive director of community pharmacies, with a bold idea. What about launching a new pharmacy in South Los Angeles, an underserved area for pharmaceutical care?

“That really kick-started things,” Svadjian says.

The school already owned and operated five pharmacies, while most peer institutions run one or two at most. The need was clear and, with the school’s long history of community service and leadership in advancing the profession, the plan for a USC South Los Angeles Pharmacy quickly took root. The team consulted with the USC Office of Real Estate and Asset Management to find the right location. Meanwhile, the dean discussed the plan with university leadership, who expressed support from the beginning.

Under the guidance of David Neu, the school’s Board of Councilors immediately took up the cause. Now board chair, Neu—former president of AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. and Good Neighbor Pharmacy—will continue leading the steering committee for the new pharmacy.

In fall 2021, the lease was signed for a 3,500-square-foot facility at the intersection of South Broadway and West Manchester avenues.

Although the onset of COVID-19 temporarily delayed finding a suitable home for the new pharmacy, the pandemic also confirmed its urgency.

Replacing A Desert With An Oasis

Conveniently located pharmacies foster healthier communities. But 1 in 3 urban neighborhoods is a pharmacy desert, meaning residents can’t fill a prescription within one mile of home-or half a mile if they are low-income and don’t have transportation.

Research shows that the urban poor who lose access to a local pharmacy are less inclined to use online alternatives and more likely to let their medication regimens lapse, leading to poor health outcomes. Some pharmacies don’t accept Medi-Cal, further exacerbating lack of access.

“A mile may not seem like much, but if you don’t have a car and have problems walking, bus connections are bad, the weather is inclement, the neighborhood is dangerous and you have a child who needed that antibiotic yesterday for a raging infection, a mile can be impossible,” says Dima Qato, who coined the term pharmacy desert and serves as Hygeia Centennial Chair at the school.

COVID-19 and economic pressures have worsened the problem. Large pharmacy chains are closing their less-profitable outlets. Independent pharmacies are endangered by the increasing vertical integration of major chains with insurance providers and pharmaceutical benefit managers. This gives big corporate pharmacies a market power that their smaller counterparts cannot match.

“The new South L.A. Pharmacy will further the school’s work in eliminating pharmacy deserts,” Papadopoulos says. “This is a critical issue nationally, and we believe this facility can serve as a model to help other communities throughout the U.S. ensure underserved populations gain wider access to vital medications and care.”

“If USC doesn’t use its resources and the incredible talent that we have on board to address a pharmacy desert in South L.A., nobody’s going to do it,” Neu adds. “Our core focus is outreach to the community, walking the talk, making a financial investment in the area, helping model what a successful pharmacy can look like in a pharmacy desert, and getting the community and some key partnerships involved. We already have a lot of national interest in this project.”

“We will be partnering with community members and leaders to find out what they would like to see in a pharmacy so that, when we open, it will meet their needs and not just what we think should be there,” Svadjian adds.

Papadopoulos and Neu are leveraging the diverse expertise of the Board of Councilors, as well as the school’s strong relationships with industry, to garner in-kind and other support to bring the pharmacy to fruition and ensure it can serve as a profitable model to help solve the national crisis of pharmacy deserts in both urban and rural settings.

Prescription For Success

The new South L.A. Pharmacy will go far beyond simply filling prescriptions. It will provide patient-centered disease state and chronic care management, serve as a vaccination and clinic site, offer health and wellness education for the community, and conduct research on best practices and patient outcomes to reduce health disparities and inform health policy.

The site will also become a hub for the California Right Meds Collaborative (CRMC), headed by Associate Dean Steven Chen, the William A. and Josephine A. Heeres Chair in Community Pharmacy. CRMC strives to make medication management more efficient, safe and effective by utilizing pharmacists as the centralized medication experts for the healthcare team. In addition, the South L.A. Pharmacy will relieve a burden on area safety-net clinics, supporting their efforts through expert medication reviews for patients.

The facility will provide yet another valuable training and outreach location for students and residents in the school’s academic programs, including undergraduates. PharmD candidates will build frontline experience under the careful tutelage of alumni preceptors volunteering their time and expertise.

Their consultation and health-screening services will be offered free to community members.
The South L.A. Pharmacy will carry medications not frequently available in neighborhood pharmacies in lower-resource areas, such as transplant, HIV and other specialty drugs that are expensive to purchase, refrigerate and house—but that are essential to quality care.

Discussions are underway with Keck Medical Center to hold health clinics at the new pharmacy, while collaborations with other USC schools and programs are also in the works.

“The devil’s in the detail on a project of this size, and that detail is something we’ll be spending an awful lot of time on to make sure that we have the most effective approach possible here,” Neu says.

Passion Project

Enthusiasm for the project among the school’s leadership is palpable.

“I’m deeply passionate about this,” Neu explains. “I did this as part of my career, setting up pharmacies, helping buyers and sellers get together, and fostering independent pharmacy. And I have a deep love for USC as a tremendous institution that people trust.”

Svadjian adds: “It’s more to me than just a job. Most people rarely get opportunities in their careers to do something that really leaves an impact. This is one of those times.”

For Papadopoulos, it’s an opportunity to fulfill his vision for a transformative endeavor that combines key aspects of the school’s mission—from service to the community and training new generations of students to modeling best practices and conducting invaluable research that advances health and informs policy. 

“The new South L.A. Pharmacy will build on the school’s long traditions while innovating to revolutionize health,” Papadopoulos says. “This is about more than just building a single pharmacy. It’s what it could mean to the field and to the patients who will benefit.”