EMHA student Priscilla Marlar combines leadership lessons, pharmacy research to tackle COVID-19

Published on June 22, 2020

A portrait of Priscilla Marlar of the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.Priscilla Marlar is a student in the Executive Master of Healthcare Administration (EMHA) program at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. In addition to being a graduate student, she’s also employed full-time at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics as the senior pharmacy technician in the Investigational Drug Services Pharmacy. Marlar recently shared insights into her journey from pharmacy to health care administration, what she finds rewarding as a researcher—including studies on several medications to fight COVID-19, and how she’s weaving new skills learned in the EMHA program into her current work.

Q: What is your background in pharmacy, and how did you become interested in the EMHA program?
A: My career as a pharmacy technician began in retail pharmacy at a Hy-Vee Drugstore and continued as I started work at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC). Since I was hired in October of 2016, I’ve served roles in acute, perioperative, ambulatory, oncology care, and now research. As my knowledge of pharmacy operations and complex health care systems grew, I began seeking opportunities for leadership and additional responsibility.

In the spring of 2018, I learned of the EMHA program at the University of Iowa. I met with the executive program director, Ian Montgomery, to discuss details about the program, and after our conversation, I knew applying for acceptance would be the next step in my career. In December of 2018, I was the first member of the class of 2021 to be accepted into the EMHA program.

Q: What kind of research does the Investigational Drug Services Pharmacy conduct, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
A: The Investigational Drug Services Pharmacy is part of the medical research engine at UIHC. We are responsible for the management, accountability, and dispensing of research medications. It’s currently estimated we’re managing over 600 studies in various stages of progress.

Being in research is thrilling and gives an opportunity to experience treatment breakthroughs, some of which are lifesaving. Clinical trials, especially for oncology patients, represent hope for recovery or additional precious time to spend with loved ones. These days, research is a forefront story in the media as health care systems navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, and research and development companies work to expedite study approvals to combat the virus with the optimism of an advanced treatment and, ultimately, a vaccine.

UIHC has participated in, or continues to participate, in four COVID-19 studies to date, one of which is the high-profile Gilead remdesivir study. As a collaborator in this study, we’re one of more than 150 sites worldwide, and the only institution in Iowa, participating. We’ve also received communication indicating participation in a vaccine study. The nature of the situation and urgent approval processes required an advanced level of teamwork between research teams, acute care providers, acute care pharmacy, and care teams. As the situation continues to evolve daily, it’s vital for all players to be 100% invested. It takes all of us to make it work.

Being a part of the research team working on these studies provokes a substantial amount of introspection. Daily, I contemplate the bittersweet aspect of contributing to this great cause because of the excitement of the science and the urgency to find better solutions to care for patients with COVID-19. As a health care worker who spends the majority of my time behind the scenes, I’m often torn between an eagerness to be on the frontline battling this beast and the commitment to the level of importance in my role as a researcher.

Q: How are you integrating the skills and knowledge you’re gaining in the EMHA program into your current work?
A: The knowledge I’ve gained since beginning classes in the summer of 2019 is invaluable. This program adeptly prepares health care professionals to take the next step in leading organizations in our field. My studies and guidance from my professors have equipped me to approach and handle challenging organizational situations, such as COVID-19. I’m reminded every day of the importance of empathy, perspective, and communication in management. The slogan UIHC has adopted, “We stand together,” is exceptionally accurate.

Going forward, it’s going to take everyone at our institution contributing to reassuring our patients of their safety, rebuilding momentum fiscally as we move into FY2021, and further shore up our preparedness plans in anticipation of what lies ahead. I’m incredibly proud of my organization and our ability to rally, organize, and focus our attention on quality and safety while navigating this uncharted path. Go Hawks!