From behind the counter, pharmacy students reach out to the community

Krista Gatto (at far right with pharmacists Rachel and Maggie and pharmacy technician Sam) spent her summer pharmacy practice at the Walgreens in downtown Madison, N.J. “I followed the example of the pharmacist I had as a teacher. She takes pride in her work,” says Gatto. (Photo courtesy of Gatto)

By Kenna Caprio

Fairleigh Dickinson University School of Pharmacy students spent four weeks this summer wearing their white coats, while learning and working behind the pharmacy counter and out in the aisles.

“Empirical knowledge is important, but to succeed in life you need to have the practical knowledge,” says Harsh Bhatt, a 23-year-old second year pharmacy student from Parsippany, N.J. That’s exactly what the inaugural class of PharmD candidates — who recently started their second year of pharmacy studies — just gained at community pharmacies across the Garden State: real life practice.

Students complete a pharmacy practice course — in either the summer or winter — once a year for the first three years of the program (Introductory Pharmacy Practice Experience or IPPE) and then spend the entire fourth year out of the classroom (Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience or APPE). Experiential learning credits make up one third of the school’s curriculum.

Through these various placements students apply their classroom knowledge at community pharmacies; hospitals; assisted living and behavioral health centers; pharmaceutical, medical device and biotechnology companies; veterans affairs facilities, healthcare and accountable care organizations and ambulatory clinics.

“Beyond the curriculum, IPPE expectations set the tone for the whole experience,” says Barbara Rossi, assistant dean for experiential education. “Once they have the knowledge base, they can apply it.”

In the initial IPPE course, students — some with previous pharmaceutical work experience, some without — worked at neighborhood stores, including Walgreens, Stop & Shop and CVS, under the tutelage of a local pharmacist serving as a preceptor (or what other academic disciplines may refer to as an instructor).

“It was all brand-new to me in the classroom: the law, procedures and the drug names,” says Krista Gatto, 25, of East Hanover, N.J. who trained at the Walgreens in Madison. “When I went into the community pharmacy setting, I was able to observe and better understand how the medications are organized, dispensed and labeled and recognize the major responsibilities of a community pharmacist. The hands-on experience was valuable as we learn to become healthcare professionals who will have a major impact on the management of patients’ health conditions and drug therapy.”

Over the four weeks, students learned an array of core competencies, starting with store workflow and inventory; followed by locating and counting various medications and practicing computer data entry; building up to interacting with doctors, insurance companies and patients and participating in patient counseling.  

“One of the core values of community pharmacy practice is building a mutual trust between the pharmacist and the patient, so that patients can understand their medication and therapy,” says Gatto.

“The doctor is diagnosing, but the pharmacist plays such a large role in treatment adherence,” adds Faiza Ahmad, 24, of Paramus, N.J. Her position at a CVS in West Caldwell, located next to an urgent care center, kept her busy as she helped patients, keyed in prescriptions and called doctors for refill approvals.

Pharmacy student Harsh Bhatt works behind the counter counting pills at the Walgreens in Parsippany, N.J. (Photo courtesy of Bhatt)

Students consulted with patients — under the direct supervision of their pharmacy preceptor— on seasonal allergies, insect bites, poison ivy exposure and stomachaches, often recommending over-the-counter remedies and medications.

Background knowledge on those ailments and conditions made it easier for the pharmacy students to interact with patients and provide counseling.

“The courses are sequential. So, in the spring of year one, courses are in dermatology, over-the-counter remedies and self-care, cardiology, gastroenterology, professional pharmacy practice. These are the skills most commonly needed in community pharmacy,” says School of Pharmacy Dean Michael Avaltroni.

Student pharmacists encountered patients dealing with diabetes and hypertension, too, while some even dealt with patients suffering from infectious diseases.

Ida Yenkoukian, 24, of East Orange, N.J., who worked previously as a pharmacy technician, expanded her knowledge base while working at an HIV specialty Walgreens in Orange.

Following coaching from her preceptor, Yenkoukian was able to present at an HIV clinic in Newark and talk to HIV patients at Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (formerly UMDNJ) at the end of her practice experience. This exposure to a different patient population fulfills what Avaltroni refers to as “learning the realities and dynamics of all healthcare populations. It’s the (University’s) global mission being lived out.”

As the students become more proficient in their knowledge and understanding of medication therapies, they gain a deeper understanding of the professional responsibilities that await them.

“As a customer, you just walk into a pharmacy and drop off a prescription or ask for a refill, but there’s so much more to it,” says Frances Kim, 30, of Garfield, N.J. She worked at a Stop & Shop in Hackensack. “A lot of thought goes into each prescription as the pharmacist considers what’s right for the patient. That’s the bottom line.”

“These tangible ‘soft skills,’ acquired through student pharmacy practice experiences, are equally important to clinical knowledge and very appealing to pharmaceutical companies and institutions looking to recruit new pharmacy graduates,” says Rossi. “When clinical skills between two pharmacy job candidates are equal, soft skills, emotional intelligence and cultural competencies become the differentiator. Experiential education is the forum for the development of these skills.”

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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