Vireak Chea PharmD '09 Takes Pharmacy Education Back to Cambodia

Vireak Chea PharmD '09 in practice

When he was just 13 years old, Vireak Chea PharmD '09 emigrated from Cambodia in search of a better education and life. At the time, the country was still reeling from one of the worst genocides of the modern era. 

Sent by his parents to live with his paternal uncle in San Diego, Chea adjusted fairly quickly to life in the United States and set his sights on a medical career. 

In 2002, he graduated from the University of California, San Diego, with a bachelor's degree in biology. While waiting to be admitted to medical school, Chea did stints as pharmacy technician for Walgreens, first in Seattle and later in Orange County, Calif., and realized he had found his true calling. 

"I had a good mentor [at Walgreens]. He was really attentive to patients," Chea said. "Many of the medical doctors I had shadowed either didn't spend or have enough time to spend with each patient."

In 2009, Chea was part of the first class to graduate from Pacific University's School of Pharmacy. Today, he continues to blaze new trails, but is doing so back in Cambodia.

Three years after Chea graduated from Pacific, his father suffered a major stroke that left him disabled. In response, Chea left his job as a pharmacy manager at Point Loma Cabrillo Drug in San Diego and returned to Cambodia to help care for his aging parents. By that time, his siblings had also returned home after years of living abroad. 

"I had never planned to come back to Cambodia," said Chea, adding that he intended to become a partner in Point Loma Cabrillo Drug and eventually buy the independent pharmacy from its founder. 

"But I wanted to be closer to my immediate family. My parents are older and on a lot of different medications. It was the right time to come back."

Since returning to Cambodia, Chea has leveraged his education and training to launch ventures that seek to modernize the country's pharmacy sector.

"I know our pharmacy profession in Cambodia is nowhere near where it is in the United States," Chea said. "I want to give back to the place where I was born." 

In 2013, he opened the first of four Western Pharmacy stores in Phnom Penh. Cambodia, a country about the same size as Washington state, already has roughly 2,000 drug stores, but Chea believes there is plenty of room for improvement in the market. Many pharmacies, he said, don't have well-trained or licensed pharmacy staff. 

"I think the pharmacy students here don't get proper training while doing internships at the pharmacies, or we just don't have enough pharmacies that offer good learning environments for students," said Chea, who did a variety of rotations as a student at Pacific. 

His Western Pharmacy stores serve as training sites for recent pharmacy school graduates and students from the pharmacy program at the University of Health Sciences in Phnom Penh. 

To improve pharmacy education, Chea has also lectured at the university on topics ranging from antibiotic awareness to preparing an effective curriculum vitae. Antibiotics, he said, are overprescribed in Cambodia, and that has led to an alarming level of antibiotic resistance.

Getting Western Pharmacy off the ground hasn't necessarily been easy. The chain must compete in a market where consumers are highly price-sensitive and pharmacy rules and regulations aren't well-enforced.

But Western Pharmacy is making a name for itself by emphasizing patient education - which is critical in a country where consumers tend to head straight to their local pharmacy when they need advice on how to treat a condition. 

At Western Pharmacy, for instance, consumers can get advice from a pharmacist on how to measure their blood pressure, interpret the results and make lifestyle changes that may lower their blood pressure. 

The chain also does a lot of community outreach, from hosting a yearly health fair for U.S. Embassy employees to offering free blood-pressure and blood-sugar screenings at a local mall. 

"We believe in patient education and building relationships with patients," Chea said. "Pricing is an issue in Cambodia. People often go where they can find the lowest price, but the relationships we build with customers often go a long way."

Despite the inroads he has made with Western Pharmacy, Chea remains frustrated by the pace of transformation in Cambodia's pharmacy sector. So, last November, he launched a less-visible venture, Community Pharma Co., that aims to help independent pharmacies better serve their customers, operate more efficiently and grow. 

Over the next five years, Cambodia, which has enjoyed rapid economic growth in recent years, is likely to see a proliferation of international pharmacy chain stores, according to Chea. He believes many of the country's independent pharmacies won't withstand the competition unless they begin making changes. 

Community Pharma Co. is a drug wholesaler and business consulting firm serving pharmacy owners. The company also offers a point-of-sale pharmacy software system that helps owners manage inventory, analyze sales data and more. The firm also helps pharmacy owners set up in-store, health-screening services, such as blood-pressure, bone-density and blood-sugar screening. 

"I will be very happy if I can take a handful of pharmacies and turn them into professionally run businesses that can sustain themselves for years to come," said Chea, who is the founder and chief executive officer of Community Pharma.

Even as he runs two start-up companies, Chea is exploring other opportunities. He says he plans to collaborate with a French Cambodian pharmaceutical manufacturer to boost the sale of products made domestically. Cambodia imports most of its pharmaceutical products, which adds to the cost of drugs. 

He'd also like to work with the Pharmacy Association Cambodia, created by Ministry of Health, as it considers new regulations for the pharmaceutical sector.

To this day, Chea benefits greatly from the insights he gained as a student at Pacific. Among other things, he recalls the emphasis on teamwork among students. He also remembers how his professors regularly asked students for feedback on the then-fledgling pharmacy program and used that information to fine-tune the curriculum.

"I learned that there are many ways of doing things, and sometimes you have to survey your customers or staff to identify problems or underlying issues," he said. "You can't be close-minded, whether you're a pharmacist or entrepreneur."

Feb. 5, 2018