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A passion for health equity: 2018 Distinguished Alumnus Kathleen B. Kennedy
By Grant Burningham / Thu Apr 5, 2018
Kathleen B. Kennedy, PharmD ’78, dean of the College of Pharmacy, Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, has been named the 2018 UCSF Pharmacy Alumni Association Distinguished Alumnus of the Year. The award honors alumni who have made “outstanding contributions to the profession of pharmacy, to society, and/or to UCSF.”
Since earning a PharmD degree from the UCSF School of Pharmacy 40 years ago, Kennedy has become a national champion of health equity while pursuing a career spanning leadership positions in hospital pharmacy, the pharmaceutical industry, higher education, and local government.
Before assuming the deanship of Xavier’s College of Pharmacy in 2010, following 20 years on the college faculty as a teacher and administrative leader, she directed pharmaceutical services at the Charity Hospital Medical Center of Louisiana—where she managed 100 full-time pharmacy personnel and a $14 million drug budget—and served as the medical liaison regional associate director for Bristol-Myers Squibb. She founded both a national conference aimed at lessening health disparities by strengthening the health of communities, and a research and education center at the college that works to improve health outcomes for diverse communities.
She credits her early training at UCSF as an important factor in her career. “My time at UCSF prepared me for things I didn’t even know I would know how to do,” Kennedy said. “The training I got there set the stage for my success.”
An early calling
Kennedy had her eye on pharmacy from the time she took an aptitude test at her Nashville, Tennessee high school and discovered that pharmaceutical sciences was a perfect career fit. Wasting no time, she began asking pharmacy schools how she could prepare. After attending California State University (CSU), Hayward (now CSU East Bay), she earned a PharmD degree at UCSF where she also completed a pharmacy residency.
Kennedy credits Robert Gibson, PharmD ’58, former UCSF vice chancellor and UCSF School of Pharmacy associate dean, and advocate for inclusion and social justice, with sparking her interest as a PharmD student in health disparity issues for minority populations. At his urging, she joined the Student National Pharmacy Association, where she published an article on sickle cell anemia, a disease affecting primarily people of African descent.
That paper was the start of a lifelong passion aimed at alleviating health disparities. Many diseases—such as heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and cancer—disproportionately impact minority communities in the United States. The gap goes beyond disease rates to include exacerbated morbidity and mortality rates. Although access to health care is a big reason for the disparity, it does not fully explain the magnitude of the gap. “It can be denial, fear, poor compliance with therapy or exercise routines,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of different things that contribute to poor control of disease.”
Addressing health disparities
“Eleven years ago, I was concerned there wasn’t a role for pharmacists in this fight against health disparities, so I started a conference to inform the community about what pharmacists can do as health care providers,” Kennedy said. The National Conference on Health Disparities, now in its 11th year, attracts more than 400 health care professionals annually and brings to light the underlying community and health care factors directly impacting health disparities, from community resilience to interprofessional partnerships.
Kennedy also founded the Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education at Xavier’s College of Pharmacy. The center's particular focus is alleviating health disparities in diabetes and cancer, especially among African Americans, through effective community engagement.
Addressing health disparities requires a broad, multi-pronged approach that considers everything from social to cultural determinants, explained Kennedy. Just by knowing a patient’s background and beliefs, and how they could result in a reticence to visit a doctor, or even to avoid eye contact with a health care provider, can improve care and save lives, she said.
“For example, my parents believed that if you have a tumor, and they open you up, you’ll die; the air will hit, and you’ll die. Even if they thought they were sick, they wouldn’t go to the doctor,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy’s passion for improving health equity is shared with her graduates, many of whom have gone on to community practice. “I really get excited when I see my students are successful. I see students who have started their own pharmacies, who are going to make an impact on eliminating health disparities,” Kennedy said.
She recently received a phone call from a former student who opened a community pharmacy in the small town of LaPlace, Louisiana. He had succeeded in getting the city council to designate a “Health Disparities Day” for the town, was setting up free diabetes screenings, and wanted her to speak to the community. “You never know who you’re impacting,” Kennedy said.
Surviving the storm and beyond
In late August 2005, Kennedy watched television news reports about the approaching Hurricane Katrina and prepared to ride it out. Even if there were flooding, Kennedy thought she could stay above the water mark in her two-story home. But it soon became clear this storm was different. Like many in the city, she fled. Kennedy’s home was destroyed, and her office flooded “up to the bottom drawer” of her filing cabinets.
Undaunted, and with the help of the greater “community of pharmacy schools,” which helped her students complete their fourth-year of experiential education, Kennedy’s PharmD students graduated on time. The commencement speaker that year was UCSF’s Gibson.
Kennedy’s dedication to community health has now taken a new turn, directly into city government. Kennedy is co-chairing the transition team for LaToya Cantrell, who will take office in May as the first African American woman to serve as mayor of New Orleans.
The UCSF Pharmacy Alumni Association will honor its newest Alumnus of the Year at UCSF Alumni Weekend 2018, June 1-2, in San Francisco.
About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.