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News & Features

Pharmacy school in Grundy addresses national shortage

by Deborah Nason
for Virginia Business
November 2005

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Amanda Blankenship has always wanted to be a pharmacist. Before August, she would have had to leave Southwest Virginia to fulfill that ambition. Instead, she is a first-year student at the University of Appalachia College of Pharmacy (UACP) in Grundy, her hometown. “It’s almost like a miracle,” says Blankenship, whose family has lived in the area for generations. “It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”

Blankenship’s father once worked as a coal miner, a common occupation in Grundy. But UACP is helping establish the town, which has a population of about 1,000, as a center for professional graduate schools. The Appalachian School of Law started in Grundy eight years ago.

The pharmacy school opened its doors in August and will award doctorate degrees in pharmacy. It is the fourth pharmacy school in Virginia. The others are at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Hampton University in Hampton and Shenandoah University in Winchester.

Seventy-seven students make up the school’s inaugural class, with Virginians representing more than half of the group. Annual tuition and fees total $22,810 for the 2005-06 academic year.

The school’s president and dean is Dr. Edgar Gonzalez, who helped to establish the Nevada College of Pharmacy in Henderson, Nev. Before going to Nevada, he was associate professor of medicine and pharmacy at the VCU School of Medicine in Richmond.

Dr. Susan Mayhew, associate dean for students at UACP, says that the new Grundy school has attained precandidate status for accreditation. She expects it to receive full accreditation after graduates from the first class pass their licensure examinations.

Even without full accreditation, competition for admission was keen. Mayhew says the school received 320 applications for this year’s class, with 500 projected for next year. One likely reason for the strong interest is the school’s accelerated program of three years duration instead of the normal four. “There are only four three-year programs in the nation,” adds Mayhew. “It puts students into the workplace one year earlier.... [and] it cuts tuition by one year.”

Because of a nationwide shortage of pharmacists, the shorter program likely will benefit employers as well as students. The American Pharmacists Association estimates there are about 8,000 vacancies across the country.

What’s the cause of the shortage? “As baby boomers age, the need for pharmaceutical services increases along with the need for medications,” says Becky Snead, executive director of the Virginia Pharmacists Association. “This follows the trend of other health professional shortages, such as nurses.”

The shortage of pharmacists is driving up salaries. The American Pharmacists Association says that the average starting salary for druggists is more than $83,000. The average income of experienced pharmacists ranges from around $90,000 to more than $103,000 depending on their workplace.

Virginia is the fourth most underserved state in the country, according to the Pharmacy Manpower Project. And its rural areas suffer the most. “The most significant thing about [UACP] is that it’s being placed in an area where there’s a desperate need for all health professionals,” says Snead.

The school will address the region’s health-care needs in a number of ways. Pharmacy services have already increased dramatically, says Mayhew, with pharmacists being placed in a local clinic, hospital, and supermarket chain. There also are plans to establish a Grundy-based clinic and bring in additional faculty.

A community service requirement for pharmacy students also will impact the region’s health-care services. “We require our students to put in at least 50 hours of community service each year,” says Mayhew. They will participate in activities such as regional health fairs, clinics, blood-pressure screenings and immunization programs.

A desire to serve brought pharmacy student David Elefterion to UACP. “There’s so much opportunity for helping others, especially with health-related activities,” he says. “I stumbled onto this school, when my wife [a nurse-practitioner] was looking for underserved population areas to work in.”

The Elefterions moved to Grundy from Stafford County. When he graduates, Elefterion may return to Northern Virginia, although he hasn’t decided yet. He also is unsure of his career path in pharmacy. “When I first entered the school, I was dead-set on becoming a retail pharmacist, because of [being able] to develop relationships with individuals,” he says. “But after the first week, they presented all the options you can choose as a pharmacist — it’s truly unlimited. The most surprising was [the idea of] working in conjunction with a doctor...to see patients and assess them and recommend prescriptions to the doctor, [whether] in a doctor’s office or an off-site clinic, like a nurse practitioner.”

The increasing number of career options is a trend in the industry, says Snead. More pharmacists are being used in diverse settings, such as research (drug development), managed care (determining the most appropriate drug coverage), public health and teaching. She sees a new role emerging for pharmacists. “We want to take the lead in communicating with patients.”

In addition to producing pharmacists, the new school helps promote the economic development efforts of the region, says Charles Yates, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. “This model of education as an economic development initiative has proven very successful and applicable to Buchanan County, Virginia’s leading coal-producing county. When you think about it, education and economic development are inextricably linked.”

Grundy native Blankenship says UACP and the law school have already lifted the spirits of local residents. “The people here are very tied to the community, with an unbelievable spirit of loyalty,” she says. “The schools have brought them a sense of pride and hope. Since the [two schools] came here, they’re trying to rebuild the town. It’s a little breath of life.”

 

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