by Amanda Ong
Ahmed Ali came to the New Holly neighborhood of southeast Seattle in 1998 with his family as Somalian refugees. Twenty years later, in 2018, Ali opened Othello Station Pharmacy in the very same neighborhood. It is one of the only independent, Black-owned pharmacies in Seattle. And unlike huge pharmacy chains, Othello Station Pharmacy offers a community approach and understanding to the labyrinth of the health care system.
“I managed a Walgreens for some time, and I just decided that I really wanted to do something different, because I saw a lot of disparities in access, availability, and resources for a large number of the Black population in southeast Seattle and south King County,” Ali said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “To actually reduce disparities when it comes to Black and Brown folks, I think the easiest and fastest way to actually address those issues is through community-owned health systems.”
Racial disparities in U.S. health care are longstanding and well-documented. As white people maintain higher access to insurance and better health outcomes, Black and Brown people are more likely to be uninsured and to lack access to nearby hospitals and health care providers. The health outcomes of these disparities are stark: The rate of maternal mortality for Black women is three times that of white women, and Black infant mortality is twice that of white babies. Black people also experience higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, not to mention how various social factors, like socioeconomic inequity and education levels, can further affect health outcomes.
Independent pharmacies are often overlooked as a community solution to alleviate health and health care disparities. Many people avoid independent pharmacies, as they worry such places will not carry the prescriptions they need. But Ali assures potential patrons that Othello Station Pharmacy goes through the same wholesalers and receives the same supplies as any chain pharmacy.
Moreover, friendly community relationships between a pharmacy and its neighbors can encourage more attentive and informed health choices. Ali made a point early on to make vaccines available in southeast Seattle, with pop-up sites and a COVID-19 response team to dispel misinformation about the vaccine, especially in immigrant communities who might have a difficult time navigating health systems. King County has seen major racial disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths, and Washington has had slower vaccine rollout in BIPOC communities.
Since January 2021, Othello Station Pharmacy has vaccinated almost 17,000 people, according to Ali. The pharmacy has two clinics every day, and it has been working with Seattle Public Schools (SPS) to vaccinate students. In December of 2021, almost 7,000 students were vaccinated through that process.
“I think resources and accessibility are the biggest challenges that our communities are facing in South Seattle. A lot of families don’t have the luxury to sit and refresh the screen for an appointment,” Ali said. “And they can just come to the pharmacy, get vaccinated, and don’t have a whole lot of hassle to go through. Culturally, I can talk to a lot of the families that say they don’t want to get the vaccine or don’t want to vaccinate their child. And I can say that we all got vaccines when we were in another country, it’s okay. I can relate to them in a very simple way that another person might not be able to relate to. And then we’re protecting the community.”
Having come to the U.S. as a refugee, Ali realized early on what an adjustment it is to move to not just a new country but also a new continent, where linguistically and culturally, everything is new. To then try to navigate a drastically different health care system that most people born in the United States have difficulty understanding, is a near-impossible task.
Corporate chain pharmacies can often aggravate this issue. Ali points out that most chain pharmacies have a simple system for people to pick up prescriptions and leave, prioritizing quick turnaround over patient care. Patients don’t know pharmacists, and pharmacists don’t know patients. Staff are often not from the neighborhood and cannot relate to patients culturally, linguistically, or even as neighbors. Independent pharmacies have a greater opportunity to act as sites of community care — where staff know and can continuously help improve the lives of their patients.
“I think knowing and having that relationship with your pharmacist and pharmacy team, that itself is a mental health factor we don’t consider,” Ali said. “It feels so different when you are at ease, when you know you’re going to be taken care of.”
Ali says his staff of 10, grown from two in 2018, is one of the most diverse pharmacy staffing pools within south King County. They speak eight different languages among them, including English, Somali, Swahili, Arabic, and Tagalog. Additionally, Ali was able to hire from the neighborhood — keeping economic opportunities for growth and impact within the South End. Three of his pharmacists, from Hungary, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, were practicing pharmacists before immigrating to the United States, where their pharmacist licenses were not recognized. Through their work at Othello Station Pharmacy, they have gained the experience necessary to sit for the pharmacy board exam and can now practice within the community.
With the help of independent pharmacies, health outcomes can improve community-wide. Ali started a delivery service during the pandemic that almost 80% of his customers use. His staff have come in at odd times to ensure people don’t miss their medications. They have helped patients who are confused by their doctor’s prescriptions and don’t speak English. They have called clinics and talked patients through medical conversations. They have done informal medication therapy management, in which they make sure seniors, especially those who do not speak English, don’t overconsume medication. These services are ones you will not find in corporate chain pharmacies.
Othello Station Pharmacy has also been able to mentor students from the neighborhood who are interested in becoming pharmacists and who otherwise would likely not have the opportunity to have a pharmacist apprenticeship at a chain pharmacy. “I think an issue that the community oftentimes faces is a lack of qualified health professionals that look like them,” Ali said. “And that’s why I’m always emphasizing mentorship and youth trainings, making sure that families are connected through mental health services, through pregnancy programs, and so forth. It’s very empowering for people to walk in proudly, knowing that one of their community members actually runs and owns this independent pharmacy.”
Ali hopes the pharmacy’s work can inspire a new generation of Black health professionals who will lead to a future of more Black-owned hospitals and clinics. To him, this is one of the greatest ways we can reduce disparities as we increase cultural understanding in the health field. “It’s one thing to tell a patient, ‘Okay, take this medication three times a day,’ and they’re gone. But there are a lot of factors that can hinder that patient from actually taking the medication three times a day,” Ali said. “What type of diet are they taking with the medication? Will they conflict? Is it the month of Ramadan, where they actually are not going to be eating the entire day, and this medication requires for them to actually eat? How do you deal with that?”
For now, Othello Station Pharmacy is incredibly proud of surviving the pandemic and going into its third year as a BIPOC-owned business. It was also recently recognized as the most innovative pharmacy in the state of Washington by the Washington State Pharmacy Association. Going forward, Ali hopes they can increase accessibility by expanding staff, hours, and eventually even other locations in southeast Seattle. Farther down the line, Ali would love to create an urgent care next door and medication management, counseling sessions, and education sessions on an ongoing basis.
“Our goal has been to make sure that the system serves the community, and the community takes advantage of the resources that are available,” Ali said. “So I would encourage people to support independent pharmacies, small businesses, so that we can continue to prosper and can continue to serve our communities, particularly people in southeast Seattle.”
You can find out more information about vaccines and boosters available through Othello Station Pharmacy by calling them at (206) 620-2400. Walk-ins are accepted.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured Image: Pharmacist Dr. Ahmed Ali helps a customer at Othello Station Pharmacy. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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