Dispensing Knowledge WNEU College of Pharmacy Looks Ahead to Year Two

Adorning a series of shelves in the administrative offices of the Western New England University School of Pharmacy are dozens of mortar-and-pestle sets — some old, some new; some big, some small; some ornate, some plain.They are gifts from a friend of the school and part of a much larger collection, and they reflect not only the long history of pharmacy education, but the immense variety and complexity of the field today.

“Pharmacy has changed a lot; it’s not just dispensing and product orientation,” said Dr. Evan Robinson, dean of the college, which opened its doors last year and will welcome its second class of students next month. And those changes in the field are echoed in one of the school’s mottoes: ’the pharmacist as educator.’

“Pharmacists have a unique role, using their knowledge for the betterment of the patient and patient outcomes, working with all the members of the patient’s health care team so that, at the end of the day, the patient has a better health experience,” he told HCN. That shift, which is seeing pharmacists become more of an educational resource for patients than just a pill dispenser, is one WNEU takes seriously.

“It’s a privilege to give care, and it’s a privilege when someone comes in to ask you for help, when someone seeks your guidance for themselves or their children or spouse,” Robinson said. “It’s a privilege to have someone trust you. Not many people in society have that opportunity to have that kind of impact on someone’s life.”

Several current students, all working toward their doctor of Pharmacy degrees in 2015, shared similar sentiments.

“People don’t always want to spend the money to go to the doctor, and they come to their community pharmacist to get advice,” said Christine Galinski, one of last year’s inaugural class of 75 students. “I see that as a real honor and privilege. It can be viewed as extra work because you’re not getting paid for it, but it’s a real opportunity. We’re not just filing prescriptions now.”

Robinson said pharmacy will become a more attractive field for young people looking at medical careers, lending credibility to WNEU’s decision several years ago to launch the College of Pharmacy. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for pharmacists will increase by 25{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} between 2010 and 2012; that’s much greater than the average career field.

“There continues to be a need for pharmacists nationwide,” Robinson said. “There have been shortages that have ebbed and flowed in the profession, but at the end of the day, what we have is an aging population of Baby Boomers — not only Baby Boomers, but the aging of society in general; we’re living longer than we ever have. And because of that extended lifespan, we’ve changed the health care model; we take more medications as we age.

“At the same time, medications are becoming more complex and more powerful, and the health care system has become more complicated to navigate,” he continued. “At the end of the day, communication with a pharmacist represents a core point in the constellation of patient care because they can help connect the dots between physicians and specialists and serve as a focal point for information. We’re a part of the health care team, and at the end of the day, we’re just trying to work together for better patient outcomes.”

Good Medicine

All these realities factored into the decision to launch the College of Pharmacy at WNEU.

“The university had given a lot of thoughtful consideration to what it wanted for what would be its fifth school,” Robinson said, noting that the institution has long had a pre-pharmacy program and had partnered with the Hampden College of Pharmacy and later the Mass. College of Pharmacy on joint pharmacy programs until 1995. “That gave enough flavor for the trustees to know they wanted their own college of pharmacy. It was a natural fit as they made the move to university status.”

Robinson’s role is a natural one for him, too, because this marks the third school of pharmacy he has had a part in opening. And from his unique perspective, “this was a well-thought-out and visionary approach to something that had been well-supported by the university community.”

Robinson said WNEU strives to graduate pharmacy generalists who can then pursue further training, if they wish, in more specialized fields. Still, being a generalist provides plenty of complexity.

“There are far more medications these days, far more drug classes,” he said. “We’re treating diseases we didn’t even know about with medications that didn’t exist a few years ago. We’re also seeing more medications being moved over the counter that had previously been available only with a prescription. As a result, patients are engaging in self-care and ingesting drugs with side effects and adverse effects that can result from inappropriate use.

“Compound that with all the issues going on in the health care system, with the uninsured and underinsured and a shortage of access to primary care, and that has put patients in a more independent and autonomous state. And one of their lifelines, one of their safety nets, is their community pharmacist.”

The program started with 75 students last year and will add another 75 this fall; a total of 300 students (or ’learners,’ as Robinson prefers to call them) will be enrolled once all four years are filled in 2014.

Of the students enrolled so far, about half came from the pre-pharmacy program at WNEU, and about half came from outside, with bachelor’s degrees in various fields. The first three years of the pharmacy program are spent on campus, while the fourth is entirely off campus, with a series of six rotations, each six weeks long, working in the field, guided by pharmacy ’preceptors.’

“That’s when a learner goes out to apply their craft, learning how to fill prescriptions, make IVs, and educate patients. To do that, they need to work with someone who has experience,” Robinson said. “And, frankly, the support we’ve had from pharmacies in our communities has been outstanding. They’re excited to see pharmacy education in Western Mass., and it gives them an opportunity to trial-run someone they might want to employ later on. But they want to give back and help because someone helped them, and it gives them an opportunity to be a teacher in the field and help the field grow. In essence, they help us shape our graduates in profoundly beneficial ways.”

Human Touch

The students who spoke to HCN about their first year at the College of Pharmacy all expressed the importance of the human side of their career choice. “I got into this to help my community and help people,” said Sagar Shah.

Galinski said she sees the field as an attractive blend of math and science, which she likes, and health care. Meanwhile, Rebecca Statham said she worked with a pharmacist whom she looked up to, and was inspired to follow in his footsteps. “He did a great job helping people in the community.”

All three also expressed pride in being the inaugural class, and look forward to being mentors of sorts to the classes that will follow them, starting next month.

“I think it’s a challenge and a benefit,” Statham said. “Obviously, it’s a challenge to figure everything out, but it’s also a benefit because, as the first students, we have an opportunity to shape the program, maybe more than most students would be able to.”

She recognizes, too, that being a pharmacist requires not just knowledge but communication skills. When it comes to prescribing, she added, many doctors stick to what they know and are comfortable with, so having a pharmacist as part of a patient’s care team can help navigate the different combinations of available drugs and what works best for each individual patient. “The pharmacist is becoming a really important part of the health care team. You’re really starting to see that.”

Galinski agreed. “We have to be able to communicate,” she said. “Just knowing things isn’t going to do anything unless we can get out there and explain it. It’s the whole pharmacist-as-educator thing.”

Robinson smiles when he hears his ’learners’ talk about the ways they can impact the field. While it’s not fair, he said, to ask any graduating class to change the world, “the reality is, the profession is going to be different than it is today, and it’s on this class to make the profession what they want it to be.”

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