May 10, 2014

Soft Skills Are Important Too

by Chelsea McSwain, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Holy Cross Hospital

Soft skills vs. hard skills…what is the difference?  Soft skills are those personal qualities and interpersonal abilities that are needed to relate to other people and work in groups.1 In contrast, “hard skills” are those skills that are essential to job function and can more easily be quantified.  For pharmacists hard skills include filling and checking the accuracy of prescriptions, calculating doses, and recalling information about drug therapy.  The pharmacist’s soft skills would include communicating effectively, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, time management, conflict management, cultural awareness, responsibility, leadership, and work ethic (to name but a few!).  These skills, although often under-appreciated, are essential to a successful career in pharmacy.  Unfortunately, these important skills are frequently overlooked and have been historically de-emphasized in pharmacy curricula.

A recent editorial by Dr. Cynthia Boyle in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (AJPE) titled “Leadership is Not a Soft Skill” discusses the importance of emphasizing leadership in pharmacy education.2 She argues that leadership development is a lifelong process – the time and dedication required to master self-efficacy, self-assessment, reflection, entrepreneurship, and advocacy does not happen overnight.  The importance of leadership, rooted in the social and administrative sciences, has diminished in recent years and was placed on the “back burner” relative to the other two core areas of pharmacy education – clinical and pharmaceutical sciences.  Boyle argues that there needs to be more emphasis on the affective domain as we design and develop pharmacy curricula and courses.3

The Center for the Advancement of Pharmacy Education (CAPE) released its revised educational outcomes in 2013.  The new CAPE outcomes document addresses feedback that called for the “inclusion of an affective domain that would address personal and professional skills, attitudes, and attributes required for the delivery of patient-centered care.”5 The educational outcomes are centered around four domains, including 1) foundational knowledge, 2) essentials for pharmacy practice and patient-centered care, 3) effective approaches to pharmacy practice and care, and 4) the ability to develop personally and professionally. The document cites self-awareness, leadership, innovation, entrepreneurship, and professionalism as key outcomes in this fourth domain.5 These outcomes have been included in the 2016 American Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) Draft Accreditation Standards, and if accepted, it will be a requirement for all pharmacy schools and pharmacy educators to ensure that graduates of Doctor of Pharmacy curricula have achieved them.6 At the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) Midyear Clinical Meeting 2013, the proposed revised PGY1 Pharmacy Residency Accreditation Standards were discussed at a town hall session.  In the draft standards, a new competency domain was articulated: Professionalism, Leadership, and Practice Management.7 As a participant in the town meeting, I noted that many speakers advocated for increased emphasis on these competencies.  It makes sense that all three major bodies in pharmacy education have proposed changes. 

With revised standards on the horizon with a renewed emphasis on “soft skills”, educators should be aware of the impact that this may have on instructional design and curriculum development.  Boyle notes that with the addition of these new expectations, we will be exposing a “hidden curriculum” – skills for which students have not been held directly accountable will now become major components of the formal curriculum. Students will need to develop their knowledge and skill through need guided learning opportunities and teachers will need to develop learning materials.  This poses significant challenges — how does one teach soft skills like leadership, professionalism, and advocacy? Perhaps it is not the act of teaching such skills that is the challenge, but a lack of effective evaluation and assessment tools that pose a problem.  Sorenson et al. piloted an elective course at the University of Minnesota that taught leadership skills to students.8 They utilized an end-of-course evaluation and focus groups to evaluate instructional design and student reactions to the learning experiences.  This may be the key to “evaluating” pharmacy leadership.  While it is difficult to objectively assess another person’s leadership skills, encouraging students to self-assess and reflect on the core components of leadership may well prove to be a key element of leadership education.  

With the evolution of new standards and a focus on the affective domain, graduates will (hopefully) possess not only the knowledge and clinical skills needed to care for patients but also the soft skills to lead and advocate for change. 


  1. Schulz B. The importance of soft skills: education beyond academic knowledge. NAWA Journal of Language and Communication 2008;146-154. 
  2. Boyle CR, Robinson ET.  Leadership is Not a Soft Skill. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013;77(10):Article 209. 
  3. Clark DR. Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Accessed February 17, 2014.
  4. Bradley-Baker LR, Murphy NL. Leadership Development of Student Pharmacists. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013;77(10):Article 219
  5. Medina MS, Plaza CM, Stowe CD, et al. Center for the Advancement of Pharmacy Education (CAPE) Educational Outcomes 2013. Am J Pharm Educ. 2013;77(8):Article 162. 
  6. Accreditation Standards and Key Elements for the Professional Program in Pharmacy Leading to the Doctor of Pharmacy Degree [draft]. American Council for Pharmacy Education. 2016; in progress. 
  7. Annotated PGY1 Pharmacy Residency Accreditation Standards Revision Drafts, For Comment and Feedback. American Society of Health System Pharmacists. Dec 2013. Accessed May 10, 2014.
  8. Sorenson TD, Traynor AP, Janke KK. Instructional Design and Assessment: A Pharmacy Course on Leadership and Leading Change. Am J Pharm Educ. 2009;73(2):Article 23.