Humanitarian Pharmacist – A Bona Fide Job

While war, natural disasters, and North-South inequalities are increasingly prevalent on Earth, humanitarian missions are organizing themselves and becoming more professional. People with a calling are always welcome, but the trend is now to recruit humanitarian professionals, notably pharmacists, who play a key role in humanitarian projects. Although pharmacists were historically restricted to an inventory management role, Jean-Michel Lavoie, president of Pharmacists Without Borders (PSF) Canada, thinks they are destined to become specialists in humanitarian pharmaceutical consultation.


Universities have deemed it essential to add an international component to their bachelor of pharmacy programs. Since 2007, second- and third-year students learn about international cooperation and requirements for health, studying subjects such as essential drugs, malnutrition and dehydration, infantile diseases, vaccination, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. This knowledge may also be relevant in understanding the needs and customs of the various ethnic groups in Canada.


Humanitarian pharmacists have backgrounds as community or industry pharmacists or biologists. Personal or professional experience in the field is an asset. Their responsibility is enormous, because they are in charge of the technical aspects of the mission, the main coordinator with health and medical authorities as well as medical coordinator of a team with one or more doctors. As for all pharmacists, they must have good listening, analytical and communication skills, but their job doesn’t stop there. Working in a generally hostile environment (difficult conditions, safety rules, stress) requires them to have developed personal balance in their lives, great maturity and sensitivity in handling human relations. They must also know how to work and live as part of a team, and be patient and tolerant with the local population, who must accept the proposed changes. Finally, they must possess basic management skills, because they are involved in programs that measure efficacy, with objectives to be reached and follow-up indicators to respect.


More than 20 years ago, pharmacists wanted to do something about the lack of medication that was killing millions of people, and voilà, Pharmacists Without Borders (PSF) was born. Today, the association helps some 20 million people in more than 43 countries, with the help of 500 participants. Pharmacists make up more than 50% of PSF mission staff, with assistants, lab technicians and doctors accounting for 10%. Its mission is to promote the implementation of dispensaries, hospitals and public pharmacies, working with local, regional, national and international authorities. Before any new mission, humanitarian pharmacists, along with administrators, evaluate the conditions (health care system, local resources and means, level of medical staff, inventoried protocols and pathologies), followed by a meeting with the authorities to set up partnerships. Afterwards, PSF’s commitment make be in the form of an emergency mission, to provide geographic and financial availability for the drug; a long-term mission to ensure follow-up and autonomy (training of staff, hospital rehabilitation); or finally a technical assistance mission to get industrial production capacity up and going.


The Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) intervenes in situations of emergency or disaster to conduct humanitarian assistance and peace maintenance operations in war-torn regions. To joining DART is to become part of a medical squad that includes a laboratory, pharmacy, rehydration, obstetrics and preventive units that can accommodate up to 30 hospitalized patients and more than 200 outpatients. Pharmacists do not limit themselves to dispensing drugs; they spend a lot of time counselling patients. This means they must be familiar with the therapeutic effects of treatments for injuries and diseases, and be able to alleviate pain, provide intensive care and manage medical supplies.

To be accepted in DART, you must join the “Direct Entry Officer (DEO)” program either as a student in a pharmacy program, or graduate of such a program. Joining the army provides significant financial benefits (indemnity of up to $50,000, support for studies, instruments and supplies), along with the requirement to commit to four years of mandatory service. Army pharmacists can become medical operations officers or pursue graduate studies.

Humanitarian pharmacists are full-fledged pharmacists with highly developed interpersonal, i.e. humanist skills and aptitudes. It is a very rewarding and fulfilling field, but one which is also very challenging. So listen to your heart, but don’t lose your head. network