Pharmacist Looks to Entrepreneurship to Aid the Chronically Ill

 “Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.”—Hippocrates

It takes a special kind of person to offer a healing touch to someone suffering from a chronic or catastrophic disease.  To nearly 4,000 individuals in Puerto Rico, that person is Enid Santiago-Aponte. 

Born in New York City, Santiago arrived in Puerto Rico at the age of four, and was raised in her parents’ hometown of Florida –the last town on the island to be named a municipality.  Santiago knew she wanted to be a pharmacist since she was in the seventh grade and in 1987, after graduating from the School of Pharmacy of the University of Puerto Rico’s Medical Sciences Campus in Río Piedras, she provided a government-required year of public service as a pharmacist to the Manatí Area Hospital. 

“I met medical sales representatives on a daily basis,” Santiago says.  “Two months before I completed my service, one of them suggested that I would be good in that field, and I went for an interview at American Cyanamid.” 

Santiago got the job and worked at the pharmaceutical company for three years before she was recruited by Bristol-Myers Squibb, a move that would eventually change the course of her life and her career.  During the 14 years Santiago worked for Bristol, she held various positions, from sales representative and district manager to marketing manager and senior account executive of managed healthcare or direct care.  This last role would define Santiago’s future. 

“While working in the area of managed care I visited a specialty pharmacy, and instantly fell in love,” Santiago declares.  “I liked the idea of having close contact with the patient, of going that extra mile to help the patient obtain his or her medication.” 

Over Christmas in 2004, a friend of Santiago’s said to her “this is your moment, go for it”.  Inspired by her parents, both of whom suffer from chronic diseases, and encouraged by her friend, Santiago lost no time in going online to research the concept and structure of a specialty pharmacy.  She worked at the pharmaceutical company during the day and spent her nights designing a business plan, later hiring an economist to help her with its financial aspects. 

In July 2005, Santiago created SPS Specialty Pharmacy Services Inc., which would be engaged in the preparation and distribution of specialty pharmaceuticals to treat chronic diseases. In January 2006, she presented her business plan and loan proposal to Banco Popular de Puerto Rico and was soon approved for a $750,000 loan under the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 7(a) Loan Guaranty program.  

“In this type of business everything is very costly, and I will be eternally grateful for the trust the bank had in me,” Santiago says. 

The SBA’s most sought out financial product, the 7(a) provides long-term financing to acquire equipment and machinery, inventory, fixtures and accessories, renovations, purchase land, build new buildings, purchase existing businesses, and for the repayment of debts.  The agency can guarantee up to 85 percent on loans up to $150,000 and up to 75 percent on loans higher than $150,000 up to $5 million. 

With the loan proceeds, Santiago purchased equipment and inventory, and made improvements to a commercial building on Luis Muñoz Marín Avenue in Caguas that she had leased due to its ideal setting in one of the city’s most traveled roads.  The location is less than a mile away from the Inter-American Advanced Medicine Hospital (HIMA by its Spanish acronym), providing patients with immediate access to treatment. 

Santiago hired a pharmacy assistant, resigned from her job at Bristol on December 22, and on December 26, 2006 she opened the doors to SPS Specialty Pharmacy Services. Nevertheless, it took a few months before patients began to arrive. 

“My first patient was my mom,” Santiago recalls. “It took a while before people knew us, so during that time I hired another pharmacist and began distributing flyers and calling and visiting doctors.”

At the same time, Enid’s sister Mildred --also a licensed pharmacist and former medical representative-- joined SPS, bringing with her a wealth of experience in the field.  The Santiago sisters’ previous experiences with doctors, in addition to SPS’ home-delivery and infusion services, achieved great and fast acceptance from doctors. The business took off, and one year after opening day, SPS had served nearly 700 patients. 

“I’ve had great acceptance from doctors,” Santiago says.  “Many of them already knew me from my days working at the pharmaceutical companies, so there was an established relationship.” 

In Puerto Rico, there are approximately 10 specialty pharmacies, all operating under a different model.  What makes SPS stand out is the direct relationship it establishes with patients, dispatching pharmaceuticals expressly to their homes, and educating patients on the proper and correct use of medication.  Specialty Pharmacy Services also serves homes for the aged, dispatching and refilling prescriptions. The pharmacy prides itself in offering excellent customer service to all patients and people from all walks of life, a significant aspect in its success. 

“There are many prescriptions that arrive by fax directly from the doctor,” Santiago says.  “Patients don’t necessarily have to come in to fill a prescription. I will deliver to any patient anywhere on the island, even in Vieques and Culebra.” 

Today, SPS Specialty Pharmacy Services employs 22 people and provides services to about 4,000 patients throughout the island, helping treat such diseases as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, and hepatitis, among others.  The business generates over $12 million in annual revenues.  The business has grown so steadily, in fact, that Santiago’s next step is to purchase a lot that’s even closer to HIMA Hospital and construct a larger commercial building where she can move the pharmacy. 

When asked about the most satisfying moments of her business venture, Santiago points out “to have worked with excellent professionals who come in to do their jobs, people who understand that if the business grows, they will grow.”  

Then, the pharmacist goes on to talk about the significance of establishing direct contact with a patient, something not many pharmacists do, and of becoming someone the patient can rely on for support and comfort. 

“To take a patient by the hand, and lend them a shoulder to cry on, to see happiness on the face of a patient I have helped, to serve others, that is my greatest satisfaction.” 

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