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Pharmacist’s position in health care field shifts gears

Aug 27, 2013: The pharmacy component of the health care system has evolved rapidly from a dispensary role to a fully integrated and essential element of medicine.

"Effective health care focused on improving patient outcomes cannot occur in a vacuum, so most - if not all - health professions are integrating the collaborative team model into their practice and educational curriculum," said Elizabeth Coyle, clinical professor and assistant dean at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy. "The stereotype of pharmacists as counting and dispensing pills is long gone. Regardless of the setting - whether it's in a community pharmacy, hospital pharmacy, neighborhood clinic or office - today's pharmacists play an integral role in direct patient care on the health care team."

Nora Osemene, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacy Practice at Texas Southern University's College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, said drug therapies are one of many key reasons that the role of pharmacists has shifted.

"Drug therapy is a major part of medical care in the United States, and drug-related adverse effects increase health care costs. Pharmacists are highly trained, and they are the medication therapy-management experts," Osemene said.

Coyle added that, as medication experts, pharmacists improve patient outcomes by optimizing drug therapies and ensuring patient safety, such as avoiding drug-drug or even drug-food interactions. Pharmacy students receive extensive training on how to counsel and educate patients on their disease state, such as diabetes or hypertension; patients' specific drug therapies; and even lifestyle or dietary modifications that can help patients manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

"Many pharmacists are involved in conducting clinical trials and research to improve the safety and efficacy of drug therapies, such as studying how medications are processed in the body or the effectiveness of new drugs or modifying the dose, frequency or duration of existing ones," Coyle said.

With regard to the academic path to becoming a professional pharmacist, students must be well-versed in a range of topics relating to pharmacology and medicine.

"The academic portion of the curriculum covers such topics as drug action, drug-drug and drug-food interactions, disease states and pharmacy law, while the experiential portion puts the students' knowledge and skills to work in the community and clinical and hospital setting," Coyle said. "Examples of specific skills and techniques taught to students include how to give immunizations, perform wellness screenings - such as blood pressure and glucose, compound drugs and prepare IV solutions in sterile environment, counseling patients and collaborating with other health care professionals."

Upon graduation, students must pass two exams to become licensed and registered to practice pharmacy in the state of Texas - the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX), which covers pharmacy practice knowledge, and the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Examination (MJPE), which covers legal and regulatory issues.

"Pharmacy is a promising field because medications constitute a major component of medical care. The average number of medications taken per patient is between five and eight," Osemene said.