CORVALLIS - When Mary Egan went to the annual Career Day hosted by the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University last fall, she hoped to meet with a few recruiters and begin tossing her name out onto the market.

But when the company representatives found out she was about to graduate, Egan found herself under siege.

"They basically flocked to me," said the 1994 West Albany High School graduate. "I actually got job offers at the fair. They were willing to interview me and hire me on the spot. The whole thing was fascinating - and a big boost to my ego."

Egan's story is not that unusual. Fueled by an aging society and tremendous growth in the health care industry, the demand for pharmacists is immense - in Oregon and nationally. Jobs starting at $60,000 to $70,000 are not uncommon, and some rural hospitals and pharmacies are even offering signing bonuses.

This shortage of pharmacists comes at a time when the profession itself is changing. Wayne Kradjan, dean of the OSU College of Pharmacy, said colleges nationwide are restructuring their college curriculum to meet the "new demands required of today's pharmacist."

"The image of a pharmacist as someone who dispenses prescription medicine just isn't accurate anymore," Kradjan said. "Many pharmacists work directly with patients and their physicians on drug strategies and therapies. What we try to promote in our college is that pharmacy is a health care profession, not a commodity."

Despite the lure of high salaries, the shortage of pharmacists persists and applications to pharmacy schools nationally are lagging.

OSU, which has the only professional pharmacy program in Oregon, is trying to address the shortage and the changing nature of the profession by enrolling its first class of Pharm.D. students this past year. The program will no longer offer bachelor's degrees in pharmacy. Instead, students will take rigorous science-based courses with an emphasis on biology, chemistry, physiology and communication before entering the professional pharmacy program, which takes an additional four years to complete.

Attracting top students to the field is a priority, Kradjan said. Competition from emerging technology fields has helped fuel the decline of interest in pharmacy as a profession, despite the high salaries and job security.

"I liken it to the stock market," Kradjan said. "Right now, technology is giving a good return on the dollar. The health care industry is like a utility; it will always be there, giving a steady return on your investment. There is no down cycle."

Kradjan says the next few years will see a dramatic shift in the role of pharmacists nationwide. Though the number of prescriptions issued is expected to rise about 33 percent - to 4 billion annually - by the year 2004, much of the actual dispensing of medicine may be handled by technicians or new robotic technology. Pharmacists, he said, will play a much more visible and defined role in meeting with patients on drug therapies and disease management.

"It will become especially important to target those patients with the greatest risk," he said, "including persons with diabetes, hypertension, asthma and high cholesterol."

While on the faculty at the University of Washington, Kradjan helped pharmacists establish special services for asthma patients. In one study, they scheduled regular appointments in the pharmacy with patients to determine whether counseling education could help them control their disease. The result: the patients used their drugs more effectively, leading to fewer asthma symptoms, less frequent emergency room visits, and lower costs.

"Despite the success of these projects," Kradjan said, "there is a lot of skepticism to overcome by physicians and insurance companies about the value - both in a health sense and an economic sense - of regular consultation."

As a recent OSU pharmacy grad, Egan finds those interactions with people the most compelling aspect of her job.

"Besides the money," she said with a laugh, "the best part of my job is the constant interaction with the public and the constant challenge to use my communication skills. But I love it. The hard work has definitely paid off."

There are 68 students in OSU's first class of Pharm.D. majors, scheduled to graduate in 2003. Students in the program can take advantage of the university's breadth of science offerings, as well as study at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, which collaborates with OSU on the program.

Before graduating, OSU students will go through eight clinical rotations of six weeks each. Two are in ambulatory care settings, such as clinics and hospital outpatient settings; two are institutional settings, such as a hospital or nursing home; and four are elective settings.

"After graduation, there also is an opportunity to participate in a year-long residency," said Vicki Henderson, newly hired outreach coordinator for the College of Pharmacy. "That gives someone a chance to specialize in pediatrics, oncology or some other specialized field."

And then there's the money.

"Being a pharmacist is rewarding," Kradjan said, "and $75,000 jobs are going begging."

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Wayne Kradjan, 541-737-5785