At Medly Pharmacy, our job is to make the prescription process painless. The providers we work with, of course, are an essential part of that process. In this installment of an ongoing series highlighting various practices and practitioners who’ve partnered with Medly, we’re introducing you to Ofiong Okon, a board-certified Nurse Practitioner in New York.
Ofiong Okon first realized the importance of accessibility in the medical field when she went to her parents’ homeland of Nigeria. “Seeing some of the health disparities there with family members who were ill, and the lack of access to quality care really sort of just opened my eyes of an issue that was there,” said Okon.
While this is what ultimately propelled Okon into the medical field, she also saw that people in the United States were struggling with access to proper care as well. “It really shed some light on the health disparities as well in the U.S. And I recognized that it's sort of a global concern. And so there was a desire to want to address some of these disparities, and how could I help sort of decrease them, or ideally eliminate them,” Okon said.
Okon is a family care practitioner who focuses on the management and treatment of HIV-positive patients. Inspired by her time in Nigeria, she said, “From a primary care perspective, I also have a huge role with PrEP and PEP. And I'm a big advocate for PrEP and PEP. It was something that I really felt passionate about and wanted to participate in that movement.”
Since PEP and PREP were introduced, Okon has seen some major changes in the HIV community. “It's reduced the overall rates, I would say in the U.S. I think it's also really contributed to de-stigmatizing the idea of HIV and allowing partners to be able to have sex with others without the underlying concern of possible acquisition of the disease. So, I'm a really big advocate,” said Okon.
Okon also notes that PEP and PREP have made a big difference in terms of family development. “Because I do have a lot of patients seeking pregnancy with one partner who is HIV positive. And so, the concerns associated with that makes it possible,” said Okon.
Regardless, there is more work to do. “Not only from a provider perspective, but really for patients as well, and spreading the word as we know HIV rates are still high in the African-American population. And so for me, my focus is really trying to reduce the rates in that community,” said Okon.
According to Okon, this work starts with the providers. “I think if more providers were aware of PEP and PrEP, and had a deeper understanding of it, it would be offered more to patients. And there'd be more opportunities to educate patients, especially cis, heterosexual women, on the use of PEP and PREP, and how beneficial it could be for them, whether in the present or in the future,” said Okon.
However, the clinician community needs a broader awareness of treatment modalities in order to be able to offer them to their patients. “I think also, especially if we want to talk about cis women as well, it's really important for the OB-GYN community to have those conversations and for it to be brought up,” said Okon. “There is sort of a lack of conversation when it comes to HIV prevention for cis women in general, and then especially for cis African-American women who have the highest rate of HIV in the States.”
In the midst of the global pandemic, Okon finds that providers can still be a significant source of care and comfort. “I think it's important to continue reassuring patients that amidst this pandemic, I am here for them and that their care is still important,” she said.
Providers also need to catch up with the technology that COVID has jump-started. “COVID has made a lot of clinicians take a step back and think about how we can fully utilize technology to its fullest capacity to provide safe and quality care for our patients. If anything, it's honestly forced us to step up and really move along this evolution of technology.”
In Okon’s experience, patients are comfortable with the changes required to continue safely seeing their doctors under COVID conditions. “As we've seen over the years, the technology has significantly advanced. And we weren't really utilizing it to its fullest potential. And so, in general, I've found that patients are really agreeable to some of the changes that we've had to make to still be able to attend to their needs and ensure that their care is met,” said Okon.
Accessibility is Always Key
For Okon, this goes back to concerns about accessibility in healthcare. “I think those conversations are important, because not only will it allow us to provide care safely for patients in this current pandemic and in future pandemics, but I think it also creates space for more patients to have access to care,” she said. “That is one of the biggest concerns that's raised across the primary care world, especially in the nonprofit realm, is that it's really hard to create more space on clinician's schedules to give access for more patients.”
In terms of suggestions for new graduates or those just starting out on a career in the healthcare field, Okon has the following advice. “It's really important to follow your instincts and explore every possible diagnosis that comes to your mind. And take your time in ruling it in or ruling it out,” she said.
She also advises to take a holistic look at the patient outside of what a book might say. “Always make sure you look at the patient in front of you and how they're presenting. And keep in mind that sometimes the textbook definition or classification may not necessarily align with the patient who's physically in front of you,” she noted. In so doing, she said, you can “merge the two together to come to a treatment option that not only addresses the patient's concern, but also maintains their care that's optimal for them.”