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Flipping the Script

As the College of Pharmacy sets a course for the future, it looks to students to help lead the way

Summer at Ohio Northern University is a quiet time. Without the full contingent of students on campus, faculty and staff can relax a little bit and recharge batteries depleted the previous year. It also is a time for departments to prepare for the upcoming term, or in the Raabe College of Pharmacy’s case, the next 20.

The 2013-14 academic year in pharmacy was highlighted by a successful national search for the college’s 15th dean. In March, ONU appointed Dr. Steven J. Martin to lead the college and its nearly 1,000 students into a rapidly changing health care world. So this past summer, as the rest of the University reset itself for 2014-15, Martin rebooted the College of Pharmacy with comprehensive strategic planning.

“The profession of pharmacy is uniquely suited to help meet the needs of our society during this dynamic time” says Martin. “By thinking strategically and thoughtfully now, we’ll prepare our graduates for the health care needs in 2020 and beyond.”

Before any planning could occur, Martin knew he needed to learn about the college’s strengths, weaknesses and areas of opportunity. He wanted data to help inform hiring decisions, resource needs, and marketing and recruitment for the college over the next seven to 10 years. In July, he surveyed more than 200 stakeholders for the college, including alumni, faculty, staff, University faculty and administration, corporate and professional partners, and, perhaps most importantly, students.

“Our new dean is really big on having students involved, and with students being such a huge stakeholder, we were glad that he asked us what we want to identify ourselves as,” says Adam Smith, a fifth-year pharmacy student and president of the Pharmacy Council.

In August, a core group of those surveyed, including the student Pharmacy Council executive board, met for a strategic planning retreat. Many interesting ideas were generated during discussion sessions, and several common themes arose that will continue to serve as the foundation of an ONU pharmacy education. Not surprisingly, many of the new ideas built upon the things the college has continually done well.

The University’s rural setting is part of the college’s DNA, and with it comes special attention to the health care needs in a rural community. ONU has always taught that pharmacists are health care providers, not ancillary components of the health care process. It is a belief shared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which calls pharmacists “the most accessible health care providers.” Smith feels that the industry is transitioning to a model in which pharmacists will be relied on to be more akin to primary care providers than they are currently, and he sees ONU well-positioned to prepare students accordingly.

“There’s a focus on how we can better prepare ourselves for the future when pharmacists will have more responsibility for the overall health of the patients,” he says. “We have this unique opportunity in this region where there may not be a doctor for a 20- or 30-minute drive in any direction. So we need to be even better equipped to be able to take care of patients.”

Rural areas experience health care coverage gaps between patients and primary care providers. Many believe this is an area where pharmacists could bridge that gap. There is legislation pending in Congress to formally recognize pharmacists as providers in the rural setting. Pharmacists are trained to manage chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and other respiratory disorders that are common problems in rural America.

“Pharmacists are prepared to step up for that,” says Smith.

Another widely acknowledged strength of the college is the depth and breadth of the existing curriculum. Between the on-campus courses and the training students receive from preceptors on a series of pharmacy practice experiences covering a variety of settings, the quality of the ONU curriculum is recognized nationally as an outstanding program. The more than 6,000 pharmacy alumni in practice also are a testament to that education. Any proposed changes would likely reflect the changing face of the industry.

For instance, if pharmacists are granted provider status and expand practice into providing basic primary care, what does this mean for alumni? In all likelihood, new certifications and continuing education opportunities would need to be offered to ensure that their ONU educations remain on the cutting edge. Similarly, current students would need more training in patient care management to prepare for such a role.

One area where the current curriculum already anticipates a changing landscape is the interprofessional education (IPE) program. IPE is a joint-disciplinary exercise where pharmacy students team up with nursing, medical laboratory science and exercise physiology majors for a problem-based, cross-disciplinary approach to health education. It is an introduction to interprofessional team-based patient care for students who will practice in health teams during their careers.

The college’s community outreach programs that bring service-learning opportunities to students, such as ONU Healthwise, were also universally valued. These opportunities allow students to see the rural health care coverage gap for themselves and gain valuable experience interacting with patients. An idea introduced at the strategic planning retreat to improve marketing the college was to expand the geographic area that these community outreach programs could be deployed to.

Overall, the strategic planning brought back positive results. Clearly, the College of Pharmacy has been doing an excellent job in preparing students to thrive in the field, and as the industry changes, the college is poised to change with it and meet any new challenges that arise. However, beyond the questions asked and the answers given, Martin’s initiative has set a new tone for the college.