Highlights from the 2021 National Community Oncology Dispensing Association (NCODA) Professional Student Organization (PSO) Annual Meeting


Kelly Williams

Kelly R. Williams
Third-Year Student Pharmacist
The University of Missouri-Kansas City
Kansas City, MO

Scott Soefje, PharmD, MBA, BCOP, FCCP, FHOPA

I attended the September 2021 National Community Oncology Dispensing Association (NCODA) Professional Student Organization (PSO) Annual Meeting in Detroit, Michigan to explore current and future challenges in the field of oncology. To be honest, the trip was a bit of a tough call, as I was in the middle of fairly hectic coursework and studies at The University of Missouri-Kansas City.  It didn’t help that I had late-night flights to Detroit and then back to Kansas City, and costs were not insignificant. I was highly motivated, however, as the field of hematology/oncology pharmacy has tremendous interest to me.  The conference did not disappoint, as I was able to attend many outstanding presentations and breakout sessions; was able to network with professionals in this field; was able to generally expand my knowledge of past and present state of the oncology care; and was able to get a glimpse of what the future might hold for this vital field.

The NCODA PSO Annual Meeting was held in-person, with opportunities for students to join virtually.  While virtual attendance has value, I was determined to attend in person.  This allowed for, among other things, opportunities for one-on-one discussions with oncology professionals as well as networking with other students. The two-day conference was held at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s Westin Hotel, which featured state of the art amenities for travelling students to utilize upon their stay. The first night was primarily reserved for attendees to mingle and connect with other students. After the discussions, students were then treated to local Detroit history, including attending the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.

The heart of the conference was day two, which featured leaders in the oncology industry speaking on a wide array of topics, including pharmaceutical excellence in leadership, the business of oncology, the future of oncology, residency and fellowship preparation, and the innovative frontier of oncology. During breaks, students also had the opportunity to network with exhibitors to get an understanding of programs offered nationally on a more one-on-one basis. Below is a summary of some of the key sessions during the conference:

Keynote, Pharmaceutical Excellence in Leadership for Students
To kick off the second day of the conference, Tim Whitten, CEO and President of Taiho Oncology, gave a rather eye-opening presentation regarding the overarching versatility and trajectory of the chemotherapy industry. United States citizens have access to oncology medications on an average of two years earlier than eligible patients in other countries, with a huge majority (over 25%) of current clinical trials being oncology related. This, along with aging populations in many parts of the world, is projected to result in oncology drug development spending of over $100 billion in the coming years. As a future pharmacist, working in the oncology space is extremely exciting, in no small part due to the variety of career paths that are available, including hospital, industry, and specialty.

Keynote, The Future of Oncology
A highlight of this event was the keynote address by Dr. Lori Pierce, Chair of the Board of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Dr. Pierce's presentation heavily emphasized persistent health disparities, and the role pharmacists have in identifying gaps in patient care, and actions needed to close these gaps. The speaker suggested that rather than denying our own implicit biases, the understanding of such biases can ameliorate our inner growth, in turn enhancing our ability to best serve the interests of all patients. Finally, Dr. Pierce closed her presentation with a statement that has stuck with me, related to staying engaged in our profession: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”.

A Patient’s Journey
Another highlight of the day two sessions was hearing first-hand from an oncology patient, a cancer survivor, as well as his physician’s perspective on the treatment that was administered. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and really listening is never a bad thing.  In this case, simply listening closely to this patient gave me added perspective on his thoughts as he was going through treatment, in particular the slow realization that we can’t assume patients know the language of or have the knowledge of practitioners. For example, a student asked the patient about how in-depth the patient went into researching his specific treatments, and his response was that researching his diagnosis and treatment was dull and boring and gave him a significant sense of anxiety. I found myself empathizing with the patient, and I will carry his insights with me going forward.

Oncology’s Innovative Frontier
To close out the conference, a panel of three individuals, Kent Barnes, Janet Loesberg, PharmD, and Marty Whalen, expanded on previous sessions, specifically regarding the constellation of opportunities in the oncology field, as well as key characteristics of future leaders in the field. As mentioned previously, the clinical trial space is largely dedicated to chemotherapy medications, with overall 95% of drugs seeking clinical trial approval by the FDA failing somewhere along the way. Furthermore, a new drug is approved by the FDA about every 4 days, so there is constantly a need for pharmacists to critically evaluate study literature and assess the ever-changing guidelines to best suit each unique patient. Finally, the panel shared personal views of general traits of successful leaders in the pharmacy field, which included encouraging others, being a strong team player, and being generally helpful, compassionate and empathetic with your peers.

Overall, the National Community Oncology Dispensing Association Professional Student Organization Annual Meeting in Detroit, Michigan opened my mind to a wide array of opportunities in oncology practice, and I cannot wait to get started with my own patients, carrying forward the knowledge and experience that I gained from the conference. I am extremely grateful to all the speakers that gave their time to give pharmacy students a glimpse into what the possible futures will look like in oncology. I encourage all student pharmacists to seek out any opportunities to further their knowledge in any clinical avenue that may be of interest. For those students looking into oncology as a possible career, I would highly recommend attending NCODA PSO Annual, and I look forward to seeing how the organization will evolve over the years to come.