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UK helps with pharmacist shortage

OWENSBORO — A partnership between the local hospital and a state university could be just what the doctor ordered for alleviating a shortage of pharmacists in the state.

The pharmacist shortage, which extends nationwide, is hitting rural areas the hardest. That's partly why the University of Kentucky and Owensboro Medical Health System have teamed up to give pharmacy students work experience with the possibility that they will one day return to help underserved populations throughout the state.

Owensboro is only the second such clinical education center in the state, and there are plans for five more. The local education center has been active only since June, but students are already getting needed experience. Students work with local pharmacists and in the hospital, and OMHS pays the associated costs.

"We're making a lot of progress, having more clinical interaction with the students," said Michael Berger, the clinical training coordinator for the local center.

This type of real-world experience, Berger said, is something that cannot be gained in the classroom.

"There are times when you've got to make decisions and sometimes ethics come into play," Berger said. "They're given the chance to take actual clinical situations, make decisions and take them back to the actual pharmacists."

Currently, four students do one-month rotations at the education centers. Next year, the plan is to double the number of students who rotate through Owensboro.

"We want to continue to grow the program," said Mike Mills, vice president of ancillary services with OMHS. "We've targeted, long-term, to be at 10 students" per rotation.

Mills said it's good not just for the students and the community, but also for the pharmacists educating them.

"We will be able to bring the latest pharmaceutical care to our patients, and when you're in the educational mode, you've got to keep your staff sharp. We're growing and learning just as they are," Mills said.

Though OMHS is not facing a shortage of pharmacists, Mills said, the goal is to expose these fourth-year pharmacy students to more rural areas and communities.

"I appreciate the challenge that community hospitals and hospital systems outside major metropolitan areas as well as community pharmacies face attracting graduates back," said Kenneth Roberts, dean of the College of Pharmacy at UK. "The university, on the main campus there in Lexington, does not provide adequate training sites for us."

Roberts said, however, they will be careful not to overload students into an area. That's why the goal of 10 pharmacy students on rotation here is the intended maximum.

"You don't just go in there and stack them up on people," Roberts said. Roberts said he also wants Kentuckians to know they are getting exceptional students from a variety of backgrounds. Ninety percent of the graduates of UK's College of Pharmacy are from Kentucky, with more than 100 of Kentucky's 120 counties represented. UK pharmacy students also have the highest pass rate on national board exams when compared with all other colleges of pharmacies around the country over the last five years.

"These are Kentucky's children that came out of Kentucky's schools," Roberts said. "When they come out of that college of pharmacy, they are the best of the best in this nation. That's what we want to send back."

And students are ready to go back. Lance Smith, one of the senior-year pharmacy students placed at OMHS now, is originally from Hartford, about 25 miles south of Owensboro, and said he plans to return to this area.

"I went into pharmacy school working to come back here," said Smith, noting that his rotation here is already helping him accomplish that goal. "I get to actually work towards helping people I grew up with. It's what I'd say is fulfilling."

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