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Counseling with Compassion: UC San Diego Pharmacy Student Wins National Competition

Grace Riggs on stage receiving award
Grace Riggs (right) is presented with first place at the National Patient Counseling Competition, sponsored by the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and the Academy of Student Pharmacists (ASP). Photo credit: UC San Diego Health Sciences

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As Grace Riggs stood in front of the camera, her heart racing, she knew she would have to think on her feet. This was the final round of the National Patient Counseling Competition, sponsored by the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) and the Academy of Student Pharmacists (ASP). Her patient, a professional actor commissioned by APhA to portray a very sick patient, was anxious and unengaged, making it difficult to convey the importance of their medication, Paxlovid, which is used to treat COVID-19.

But Riggs, a third-year pharmacy student at the University of California San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, drew on her training and experience to connect with the patient and provide clear, compassionate care. The result: she won first place in the competition, outcompeting over 100 other students from across the country over three separate rounds.

“When I heard my name announced at the awards ceremony, I was ecstatic!” said Riggs. “I am so grateful that I have had the chance to attend such a great program and work with so many fantastic mentors and faculty who have set me up for success not only in this competition, but for my future as a pharmacist as well.”

Though her win was decisive, her journey to get to this moment was not so straightforward. Initially, she had set her sights on becoming a physician, completing pre-med coursework and shadowing M.D.s as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University, where she graduated in 2021.

However, as she delved deeper into the world of medicine and shadowed a clinical pharmacist during one of her rotations, she realized that her true passion lay in the hands-on, drug-forward aspect of patient care.

“I found I had no interest in diagnosis but all the interest in treatment,” said Grace Riggs. “Pharmacists work closely with physicians to develop treatment plans for patients based on a wide range of factors specific to that patient. Each case is unique.”

This epiphany led Riggs to pursue a career in pharmacy, and she was drawn to UC San Diego's program because of its small class size and strong teacher-to-student ratio. Ranked #12 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences is known for its exceptional faculty who are dedicated to providing students with a comprehensive education that prepares them for success in the field.

"I wanted a program where I could have mentors that really get to know me and cared about my practice," said Riggs. “UC San Diego was actually one of my reach schools when I was applying to programs, so I was thrilled to be accepted.”

While it was ultimately Riggs’ exceptional patient counseling skills and strong knowledge of pharmacology that earned her the top spot in the competition, she credits UC San Diego's pharmacy program for helping her build these skills.

The program's emphasis on hands-on learning experiences and innovative curricular offerings provides students with a unique and well-rounded education. For example, in addition to completing Objective Structured Clinical Examinations, which use paid actors to assess clinical competencies, students at UC San Diego’s pharmacy school gain practical experience providing patient care to underserved populations at the UC San Diego Student-Run Free Clinic. The school's faculty have also won numerous awards for their teaching and mentorship, demonstrating their commitment to student success.

"Grace's achievement is a testament to her unique talents and also to the strength of our pharmacy program and the exceptional training our students receive," said Brookie Best, Pharm.D., M.A.S, dean of the pharmacy school. "We're proud of our students for showcasing their skills and preparing for their future careers as pharmacists."

As Riggs looks to the future, she is excited to continue developing her skills and pursuing her passion for pharmacy. She hopes to do this by completing a residency after pharmacy school, with an eventual focus on solid-organ transplant medicine, a field in which, according to Riggs, the importance of the pharmacist is paramount.

Transplant recipients spend the rest of their life on immunosuppressive medications, and this introduces a wide net of other complications that have to be carefully managed,” she said. “As the healthcare industry evolves, the role of pharmacists in delivery of effective and compassionate patient care is going to keep expanding, and my training here has gotten me excited to be a part of that.”

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