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Strengthen Your Chances of Success with Soft Skills
by Jen Phillips, PharmD, BCPS, ICHP President; co-written with Sheron Chen, PharmD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Sciences, Roosevelt University College of Pharmacy
During pharmacy school, students tend to spend more time and emphasis increasing their knowledge about a myriad of pharmacy-related topics. However, what most new practitioners discover soon after starting to practice is that having knowledge is only half the battle. Learning how to be successful in the workplace requires many different types of skills – communication, teamwork, adaptability, emotional management, to name a few. Knowledge is useless unless it can be shared – with a patient, with another healthcare provider, or with a colleague, and having the optimal tools to do this in an effective manner is critical to being an effective pharmacist. While the corporate world seems to have embraced the importance of these “soft skills” and their relationship to success, it has only recently worked its way into healthcare education and practice.
In recent years, increased emphasis has been placed on developing pharmacy students who have the professional and personal skills necessary for the optimal practice of pharmacy. These skills, sometimes referred to as “soft skills”, are necessary for pharmacists to form optimal relationships with patients and other healthcare providers. The 2013 Center for the Advancement of Pharmacy Education (CAPE) outcomes and the 2016 Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) Standards identified the following characteristics as being essential for every entry-level PharmD graduate to possess: self-awareness, leadership, innovation/entrepreneurship, and professionalism.1,2
Practicing pharmacists and technicians, who may not have benefited from these recent curricular changes, may be looking for ways to refine their skills in these areas and/or to help rotation students begin to develop these essential practice skills. The purpose of this article is to highlight methods and resources that practitioners may find helpful when strengthening their own “soft skills” or when helping to develop the skills of pharmacy students or residents they are precepting.
Emotional intelligence. The concept of emotional intelligence has been around for many years and has been defined several different ways. In essence, it involves the ability of an individual to appropriately sense, comprehend, and respond in an effective manner to emotional signals sent internally and by others.3,4 It has been suggested that individuals with higher amounts of emotional intelligence are more successful than those with lower emotional intelligence, even if their technical abilities are the same or less developed.5,6 The constructs of emotional intelligence vary slightly from source to source, but essentially involve the following components: self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management.6
Self-awareness involves the ability to accurately identify emotions while they are happening. In other words, to discover what makes you “tick”. Knowing what triggers your buttons and why can help you develop more effective strategies to manage your emotions. Take time to observe yourself in a variety of emotional situations and think through what you are feeling and why. Try to avoid passing judgment on the emotion itself; get out of the habit of “labeling” every emotion as “good” or “bad”. Journaling may help as well – writing down what went well, what did not go well, and things to think about the next time you are in a similar situation will allow you to turn a perceived negative situation into a learning experience.
Learning how to regulate emotions is another key facet to emotional intelligence. Resisting the urge to “fly off the handle” during emotionally charged conversations is more difficult for some than others. However, maintaining self-control in these scenarios ultimately leads to less regret and improved chances for long-term success. Conversely, others may struggle with finding the courage to speak up in an unfamiliar environment. However, conquering fear in these situations can help improve self-efficacy and also lead to increased chances of long-term success. There are many strategies you can use to help regulate immediate physiological responses to stress, including deep breathing, visualization, and rationalization. New practitioners may also consider finding an individual who is very good at emotional management to serve as a role model when they are developing their own skills. Visualizing how that individual would handle a stressful situation may help you perpetually fine tune your own approach.
Mastering one’s own emotions is just one step of the process, however. Working effectively in a group requires a keen sense of social awareness and relationship management as well. When you are in a group, pay attention to others’ body language, be present in the moment to listen to what people are saying, and then verify that you have heard and understood correctly. Learn how to give and take feedback well. Remember that every conflict involves two individuals and that, very rarely is one person entirely at fault. Concentrating on what you can do to mend the conflict will be a much more productive use of your time and will lead to a greater chance of mending a strained relationship.
Emotional management may take a while to master, but is well worth the effort. Emotional intelligence has been associated with increased job satisfaction, better stress management as well as academic and professional success.3,7,8 Educators are increasingly recognizing the importance of this crucial skill, especially for healthcare practitioners.3 New practitioners working as junior faculty within a college of pharmacy may consider recommending that didactic coursework in this area be implemented. One study found that incorporating tenets of emotional intelligence into a required communications course within a college of pharmacy was well received by students.9 Many resources exist to help new practitioners develop their skills in the area of emotional intelligence, including many books, articles, and TED talks.
Entrepreneurship and Innovation/Adaptability
Most people hear the word “entrepreneur” and think of an independent, capable, and business-savvy individual. However, an entrepreneur can be defined as a leader and forerunner in their field; someone who creates innovative opportunities within their profession.10 The history of pharmacy is characterized by the entrepreneurial and innovative pioneering of many pharmacists. Those who owned and operated independent pharmacies, created opportunities for patient care in clinical settings, and essentially forged paths where no pharmacist had gone before. It is thanks to these innovators that pharmacists today can enjoy the multitude of possible pharmacy roles available to a new practitioner.
While current pharmacy practice places a large emphasis on producing pharmacists adept in clinical knowledge and skills, we must still strive to maintain an entrepreneurial spirit like those who came before us.10,11,12 In our current environmental landscape, it is crucial that pharmacists practice with an entrepreneurial and creative mindset. With the shifting US healthcare model and an ever-increasing need for efficient and effective healthcare, pharmacists must take advantage of and create opportunities to expand or solidify their role as medication experts.
Pharmacists and technicians have been armed with the clinical knowledge and skills necessary to engage with healthcare workers and patients to optimize medication use in numerous settings. However, you might wonder how someone like yourself can practice with an entrepreneurial mindset. Necessity is a powerful incentive. Look around and analyze the pharmacy environment that you currently practice in. Ask yourself if there is any way that medication management or patient care can be improved by something you, as the pharmacist, can do. Perhaps you notice that the other healthcare providers you work with would benefit from an in-service about updated guidelines or newly approved medications. Maybe you see the need for offering diabetic counseling or smoking cessation sessions to the patients that regularly pick up their prescriptions from your pharmacy. Sometimes it may be as simple as providing dyslipidemia patients with a list of common foods that contain heart-healthy fats or teaching hypertensive patients where to find sodium content on a food label. If you are able to provide a new or improved service that can ultimately impact patient health using your skills and training, you are practicing as an innovative pharmacist.
Once you have recognized the need, you will then need to plan out the basic logistics of how you can provide the service. Think about how you will operate the service and how to obtain any additional supplies you may need. Many times the most difficult resource to supply is manpower or time. This is where resourcefulness and determination is vital. If your practice serves as a rotation site, this may be an ideal area for students to help. A discussion with your supervisor may also help you brainstorm possibilities.
Many pharmacists may already feel they have enough on their plate without adding any additional work onto their load. However, an entrepreneurial spirit works with the end vision in mind, and is not deterred by the work and change that will be required to implement it. Although all change is difficult at first, you must believe that your efforts will produce a positive effect on your patients, co-workers, and ultimately—yourself! Imagine the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that will come when you begin to witness the positive impact that your work has produced on those around you.
Professionalism. Professionalism is an integral component for the success of any pharmacist’s career. Professionalism can be defined as the general demeanor of a pharmacist towards their patients, peers, and other health care professionals, determined by their courteous, respectful, appropriate, and empathetic attitudes and behaviors.13 The definition of professionalism can also be seen as the compliance of an individual to all of the responsibilities inherent within his/her profession. For a pharmacist, this includes patient advocacy, ethical behavior, continual self-improvement, and respectful collaboration with other care providers.14
In your daily practice, do everything with the best interests of the patient in mind. Whether you work directly or indirectly with patients, your actions as a pharmacist can either positively or negatively affect patients. Use your knowledge of drug therapy and the health system to advocate for the patients within your care. As you work with others, whether they are physicians, nurses, patients, clerical staff, or the cleaning crew, your reputation of professionalism (or a lack thereof) will precede you. Treating others with respect and integrity nurtures positive and trusting relationships. It is essential that all pharmacists serve as role models for students, residents, and fellow practitioners. When precepting students and residents on rotation, remember to instill these values and expectations in them as well; ask them to treat every person at the rotation site with the same respect with which they treat their preceptor.
Conclusion. Although the name may sound deceiving, “soft skills” can provide a very solid foundation for professional development and their importance to your success as a professional should not be underestimated. As you begin your career, spend time developing an action plan for “soft skill” development; this combined with professional skill development will help to ensure that you practice at the top of your abilities.
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