Spotlight on Hoan Linh Banh

Danica Erickson - 09 September 2021

Hoan Linh Banh is a pharmacist and researcher with the Department of Family Medicine, and recently she joined the department’s strategic planning and management committee as the non-physician representative. Hoan Linh recently shared her thoughts on the role of pharmacists in health care, the value of developing relationships, and working with learners.

How long have you been teaching with our department? Why did you start?

I’ve been with the Department of Family Medicine since 2013.  Before that, I was with the U of A in the Faculty of Pharmacy, where I had been hired specifically to update the clinical skills lab in the pharmacy program.

What is your background?

I grew up in Toronto. A lot of my family are business people, so I was also intrigued by being able to combine science with business. At the time pharmacy was a really good choice if you wanted to combine science with business, so it was a good option for me.

A lot of students know that pharmacy is an important part of the health care system, but they don’t realize it also involves business practices. The pharmacy workflow is a part of the business that you have to understand.  

What drew you to the Department of Family Medicine?

I attended the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science for my undergraduate degree  and worked in a hospital in Philadelphia for almost two years after graduating. I also did a Primary Care Specialty residency in 1997 in the United States after I received my Doctor of Pharmacy degree, so when the opportunity came up, I thought it was a good idea to go back to what I was trained to do. So I did.

I don’t think it’s well-known that there are a lot of pharmacists working in FoMD, including working with researchers.

Which learners do you take? 

Right now, I only take pharmacy students. But when Dr Andrew Cave has family medicine residents in the Kaye Clinic, I do try to teach them when situations come up. I’ve been there long enough for the students and residents to feel comfortable approaching me if they have questions. Most of the time if they don’t understand about drugs they come to me. When I first started, most people didn’t understand what my role was, but after they saw how I practice with Dr. Cave they became very comfortable with the idea of working with me. Now they sometimes ask me to talk to patients who have medication related problems. It’s nice once you establish that rapport.

When I first started at the clinic, Dr. Cave would send patients to me that had a lot of medications - like shopping bags full - so I could help them gradually stop taking the ones that weren’t necessary. It takes a lot of time and trust to build a relationship with patients, but once they understand you know what you’re talking about they trust you.

Tell us about your favourite teaching memory.

My  favorite story is a recent one. I have a patient, a long term patient of the clinic I have known since 2013, who I knew was seriously vaccine hesitant.  We’ve built a really good rapport over the years. Even though I was pretty sure he wouldn’t get the COVID-19 vaccine, I still thought it wouldn’t hurt to try to talk to him about it. He came in April this year for a refill, and I casually asked him “Were you able to get your vaccine?” He hadn’t.  When I asked him if he had any concerns he shared that he doesn’t trust it; he knows it takes years and years to develop a drug and get federal approval, and was suspicious about the vaccine being developed and approved so quickly. I took the time to explain the science and technology used to develop the vaccine for SARS, which appeared in Canada in 2005, was used to make the COVID-19 vaccines. I also let him know that the technologies developed since 2005 are already being successfully used in treatments like chemotherapy.  

After I told him that, he agreed to get the vaccine if I could provide it right at that moment. I ran to the Kaye Clinic nurse, and together we worked with the Rexall pharmacy down the hall from the clinic to get him booked to get the vaccine that Friday. I learned later that he got his second dose too.

A summer research student I’ve been working with saw all of this happen, and he asked me how I managed to convince this fellow to get the vaccine. He knew the patient a little bit and was surprised he agreed to it. I told him I was too; I’ve known this patient for a long time and I really hadn’t thought he’d agree to it. I told him that it’s all about building good relationships with patients. I think it was a good teaching moment for him to see the value of connecting with people, including your approach with asking questions. I always say “Were you able to get the vaccine” rather than “Did you get your vaccine?” which is almost like you don’t give them a choice. I try not to confront patients and put them in a corner.

I was actually hired by the U of A Faculty of Pharmacy to revamp the pharmacy skills lab because of my teaching experience at Dalhousie University, where I taught for nine years. The U of A pharmacy program was still teaching by checking prescriptions rather than communicating with healthcare providers. I had experience teaching the problem-based learning approach at Dalhousie, which is interactive rather than lecture-based. I think teaching students how to problem-solve is one of my better teaching skills. You can’t do that with a powerpoint, so I like to do a lot of interactive teaching.

What keeps you motivated to teach in challenging times like these? 

I think pharmacies and pharmacists are often overlooked in health care, but the pandemic has changed that. Pharmacies and grocery stores were considered essential services. They were the only two that were open. In Alberta most pharmacists can prescribe medications, except controlled substances or narcotics. But during the pandemic that expanded to us, so the responsibility fell on us. If people couldn’t get to a GP, they went to a pharmacy because we had to open.   

But when the media spoke about health care providers, pharmacists were never mentioned.We eventually got recognition when we started to provide the COVID-19 vaccines. People underestimate how many vaccine doses pharmacists have provided since January 2021.

Pharmacists got a lot of exposure from that, and got recognition when the vaccines were being given.