UT Tyler Fisch College of Pharmacy Makes an Impact During Pandemic

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Publication Date: 05/28/2020

Bell and Douglas in front of Cody Drug PharmacyPharmacists are often on the front lines in various practice settings and have continued to provide essential patient care services, including health promotion and medication therapy management, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As many of the roughly 67,000 US pharmacies face new challenges with COVID-19, the Fisch College of Pharmacy learned the virus outbreak puts tremendous strain on community pharmacists and pharmacies in East Texas as they aim to meet the needs of their patients – many in rural areas. Independent pharmacists often don’t have the same resources as chain pharmacies, according to Dr. Pamella Ochoa, UT Tyler associate dean of experiential education.

“Pharmacies endured an uptick in volume amidst significant staffing challenges,” Ochoa said. “Recognizing student pharmacists can play a significant role during these times, the college quickly developed a plan to help address this critical need in community pharmacy settings.”

Answering the Call

College officials developed a COVID-19 Call Center with 55 student volunteers to assist the East Texas community with any virus- and medication-related questions or concerns. They also formulated a survey to evaluate interest in partnerships among Texas community pharmacies with the Fisch College of Pharmacy. With assistance from the Texas Pharmacy Association, the college sent the survey to over 600 independent pharmacists throughout Texas and an additional 2,500 chain pharmacists.

“To assess the availability of students, we also distributed a “Call to Action” survey to our P4 students, asking them to consider volunteering at pharmacies with critical need and/or at the COVID-19 Call Center,” Ochoa said. “Since many of the P1 and P2 students were no longer located in Tyler due to our transition to online learning, we needed to identify new rotation sites in the region where they are now residing.”

Following those surveys, the college began to strategically pair students with community pharmacies from the survey based on geographic region.

“While providing help to these pharmacies, students are learning how to navigate patient care during a unique and challenging time,” she said. “With over 100 students available to assist through experiential education, and many more voluntarily responding, we are providing support to our colleagues in the pharmacy profession.”

The Fisch College of Pharmacy through these efforts has served as a leader not only in addressing the needs among the state’s community pharmacies, but also by providing UT Tyler student pharmacists with the vital experience they need to start successful careers, Ochoa noted.

“Not only will our students be better prepared for future challenges similar to COVID-19, they will also understand the importance of their role in providing patient care during crises,” Ochoa said. “These educational outcomes will be undoubtably valuable to their pharmacy careers.”

From A Student’s Perspective

One of those UT Tyler student pharmacists who served during this pandemic is Lindsey Bell of Tyler. The P4 student completed an advanced patient care elective rotation at Cody Drug Pharmacy in Sulphur Springs. Cody Drug serves hundreds of patients in Hopkins County and the surrounding areas. The pharmacy processes an average of 400 to 600 prescriptions daily and accommodates one to three student interns at any given time.

Bell’s rotation began March 23 and concluded May 8. She typically attended rotation from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Bell would provide data entry for refills and new prescriptions. She handled most of the patient transfers along with any new prescriptions that were called in and spent most of her time interacting and counseling patients over the phone. She also helped fill prescriptions as needed.

Bell called the rotation “an invaluable experience.” She asks, “How many students get first-hand knowledge of how a pharmacy handles itself during a pandemic? How many students get to interact with patients under circumstances like this?”

“I was able to be up-front-and-center to a global, historical event,” Bell said. “This time challenged everyone to think critically and get creative on how we can still provide patients with their healthcare needs, while also limiting both their exposure and healthcare workers' exposure to this virus. This was not something that could have been learned in a classroom, and I'm extremely grateful that I was allowed this opportunity.” 

From the Preceptor’s Perspective

Cody Drug pharmacist and preceptor Ryan Murry said the pharmacy saw about a 20 percent spike in customers coming to the pharmacy for their medications in a two-week period following the initial COVID-19 outbreak. However, since that time business has resumed its normal pace.

The pharmacy’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 included making employees wear face masks, daily temperature checks of all employees and cleaning workstations at regular intervals, Murry said. Perhaps the biggest change that Cody Drug made, he noted, involved closing the lobby to the public and converting the pharmacy to drive-thru only. 

“While this process may have temporarily increased drive-thru wait times, the action protected our employees and patients at an unprecedented time for infectious disease control in our nation’s history,” he said.

Murry enjoyed having Bell working alongside Cody Drug staff and believes she will be an “outstanding” future pharmacist.

“Lindsey was truly an exceptionally wonderful intern,” Murry said. “Upon arriving at Cody Drug, her friendly, enthusiastic attitude quickly garnered a fan base of patients and coworkers alike, and she even gained the nickname of ‘Ms. Customer Service’ while she was here.”

Murry says interns like Bell and the pharmacy’s partnership with the Fisch College of Pharmacy are important to the livelihood of the pharmacy itself and the community pharmacy aspect. At Cody Drug, they genuinely try to promote learning specific to each student at each stage of their professional academic career and make the internship enjoyable for them, he noted.

“We have the opportunity to impart real-world knowledge of community pharmacy to students,” he said. “It's really cool to see the ‘aha!’ moment when something that the student learned in class clicks with something that they witness first-hand at the pharmacy.

“While we recognize that Sulphur Springs is a bit of a trek from Tyler, we certainly appreciate the time that we get to spend; and the potential impact that we are able to make upon each student.”

From the Pharmacy Owner’s Perspective

Cody Drug owner Will Douglas acknowledges UT Tyler’s efforts and appreciates the University for stepping up during the COVID-19 crisis. He said UT Tyler was eager to work with him and schedule qualified student pharmacists like Bell at independent pharmacies to learn and help during this uncertain time.

“It was comforting to know that if we found ourselves in a bind, we'd have an army of well-trained pharmacy students ready to roll,” Douglas said. “I'm looking forward to our continued partnership with the University and the opportunity to work alongside and train the next generation of community pharmacists.”

Bell said what made learning at Cody Drug such a great experience was the staff there.

“A workplace or rotation is only as good as the people you have working beside you, and the staff at Cody Drug is the prime example of teamwork,” she said. “If anyone needed help, someone would stop what they were doing and jump in to assist. Their teaching style is that of patience, good humor and encouragement.”

The student pharmacist also appreciates the team-based learning approach the college offers, and said UT Tyler also provided many leadership opportunities that allowed her to grow as an individual.

“The Fisch College of Pharmacy reminds us continuously throughout our four years that empathy is a huge part of the patient care process,” she said. “Although empathy is not necessarily something that can be taught, it is something that can be practiced. It is a skill that truly puts us above all others.”

Bell hopes to own an independent pharmacy one day, noting that an independent pharmacy can foster a deeper relationship with the patient, which ultimately can lead to better to health outcomes. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, relaxing with good coffee or wine and spending time with her husband and 2-year-old daughter.