CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recent report concludes that pharmacy colleges across the nation need to more aggressively train and involve their students in becoming the “front line” of medicine, to reach out to underserved populations, those with little insurance, special needs, low income or minority groups.

The modern pharmacist is taking a far more involved role in clinical prevention, health promotion and “community” pharmacy, rather than just being dispensers of medications, a task force concluded. Educational programs must better train future pharmacists about the importance of these roles and the skills needed to perform them.

“Everyone recognizes that access to health care is a huge problem, and today’s pharmacists can do a great deal to help,” said Ann Zweber, an instructor of pharmacy education in the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University. “For many people pharmacies provide the first, and sometimes the only health care they get, when they can’t afford to see a doctor, travel long distances or pay for medications. We want our students to understand these issues, realize their ethical obligations and get involved.”

Zweber was a member of a recent national task force on “caring for the underserved,” and author of a publication on its findings in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.

“Pharmacy graduates must not only have the knowledge, attitudes and skills to provide quality pharmaceutical care,” task force members wrote in their report. “They must care enough to proactively seek opportunities to render that care to the disenfranchised and forgotten people within our society.”

Even in urban areas, Zweber said, pharmacists are now frequently involved in immunization programs, health screenings, medication therapy management, dispensing products and advice, and helping patients learn about and sometimes wade through the maze of bureaucracy to access some health assistance programs.

In rural or remote areas, the demands can go far beyond that. Cultural factors, literacy and disabilities can all become roadblocks to care.

Among other findings, the recent task force recommended that:

• Care for the underserved should be incorporated into the pharmacy curriculum.
• Engagement in this area by students and faculty should be recognized and rewarded by administrators, including promotion and tenure decisions.
• Partnerships should be formed with community organizations.
• State and federal support for such programs should be developed and sought.
• Multilingual skills should be emphasized and encouraged.
• Every school or college should have at least one “champion” for helping the underserved.

Such initiatives have been an increasing part of OSU’s pharmacy instruction programs in recent years. Every student is required to do at least one six-week rotation in an underserved setting or community.

Some students work with Mid-Valley Housing Plus, helping mental health patients with their medication management. Many participate in a workshop that teaches “Spanish for pharmacists.” Others go on rotations to community outreach clinics where they help test blood pressure, answer medication questions and provide health education. Many work in rural areas, and some have traveled to underserved communities in Tanzania, Indonesia and Central America.

“We don’t want our students going through college in a bubble, unaware of what’s going on in the outside world,” Zweber said. “We see them developing a sense of obligation to serve people, do volunteer work, give back to the community. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of time and effort to balance a community project with a final exam. But it’s worth it.”

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Ann Zweber,