Dual Degrees: Full Speed Ahead

Pharmacy CareersPharmacy Careers Fall 2011

More student pharmacists are thinking

More student pharmacists are thinking "outside the box," opting for innovative dual degrees that lead to nontraditional careers.

Still a popular choice for the enterprising set, the PharmD/MBA is now a standard option at many pharmacy schools, and new combinations are becoming available to help students pursue their passion and distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded job market.

The number of dual degree programs has skyrocketed in the last decade. As recently as 2005, just 32 of the nation’s colleges of pharmacy offered a dual degree. In the current school year, 64 schools expect to offer at least 1 dual-degree program, according to an annual report by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP). With programs at 43 schools, PharmD/ MBA is still the most common joint degree; however, more schools are expanding their curricula to include PharmD/PhD (31), PharmD/ MS (14), and PharmD/JD (7) degrees.

Students’ individual reasons for choosing a dual degree vary, but a common thread is their interest in the business and social aspects of health care, AACP reported. They also opt for the intensive programs as a way to hone problemsolving, leadership, and communication skills while engaging with students and mentors in other disciplines. Pharmacy schools that offer the programs do so to “prepare graduates for alternative non-academic pharmacy careers” as leaders in for-profit, nonprofit, and government health organizations.

Forging New Career Paths

Talk to any practicing pharmacist about job security and you’re likely to hear this abridged version of supply and demand: “Too many pharmacy schools, not enough jobs.” While the maxim rings true for many in the field, it only tells part of the story, according to Ruth Nemire, PharmD, founding dean of the Medco School of Pharmacy at Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU), which opens its doors next fall to an expected inaugural class of 85 students.

“I think this is a really exciting time for students,” she said, adding that demand for pharmacists’ expertise is surging in nontraditional areas. As for the abundance of pharmacy schools, the dean explained that “[the issue] does come up, and within the academy there’s been a struggle” to figure out how to adjust curricula to reflect changing dynamics in the profession. “It’s collegial, it’s good debate and discussion about where the practice is going,” she said.

It’s also paving the way for a new generation of pharmacy school graduates with specialized knowledge and a bright future, according to Dr. Nemire. At the FDU Medco School of Pharmacy, students will be able to choose from innovative programs leading to a PharmD/MBA, PharmD/MPA, or PharmD/MS with specialization in emerging areas such as regulatory affairs, health humanities, clinical research methods, and informatics.

The school is working with potential employers to identify and create opportunities for pharmacists to practice in these new areas. Along with university leadership, Dr. Nemire assembled a board of 30 representatives from professional associations and industry partners and asked, “What do you see the pharmacist of the future doing?” The answers they provided helped FDU determine which degree paths aligned with the school’s mission.

For example, Dr. Nemire said the master’s degrees in public administration, health humanities, and health communications were a “really good fit, as we want our students to be advocating for the profession and advocating for health.” She and the school’s cofounders also intend to develop a master’s degree in pharmacogenomics, reflecting industry’s need for leadership in personalized medicine.

She sees a new breed of pharmacists working for information technology companies, government and regulatory bodies, ambulatory clinics, and physicians’ offices. With the right training in communications and public policy, pharmacists can also help govern national organizations that advance chronic disease research and education, such as the American Diabetes Association or the COPD Foundation.

Preparing students to fill these roles requires a paradigm shift in pharmacy education, and dual degrees are a critical part of the equation, according to Dr. Nemire. By diversifying the pharmacy workforce, she hopes to take advantage of existing opportunities and, ultimately, create new jobs for pharmacists.

Completing the Team Care Triad

The rise of dual degrees in pharmacy coincides with a growing need for clinicians who are well-rounded “team players.” As baby boomers get older, health reform kicks in, and treatment costs increase, policy makers will expect providers to deliver coordinated, interdisciplinary care. This is the cornerstone of accountable care organizations (ACOs)—the networks of health professionals that are one of the most talkedabout provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Exactly how pharmacists will participate in ACOs is still up for debate (read “The Medical Home Model” in the February 2011 issue of Pharmacy Times at http://phrmcyt.ms/nLJP9t), but their potential for advancing the model is clear. ACOs represent an opportunity for pharmacists to improve medication safety, provide disease state management education, optimize the use of informatics and technology, and monitor adherence and drug response through medication therapy management.

Dr. Nemire calls these clinical applications of pharmacy expertise the “positions of the future.” With the specialized training a dual degree offers, pharmacists are equipped to take on the responsibility of a primary care role and lead the charge for allied care. “Pharmacy completes that triad [of physician-nurse-pharmacist] to drive medication safety forward,” she said. “We want to play as part of the team.”

Choosing a Dual Degree

Because many dual-degree programs are relatively new, choosing to pursue one can feel like entering uncharted waters. If that energizes you, it’s a good sign you’re making the right decision. The qualities that define an ideal candidate are as unique and variable as the degrees themselves, but certain characteristics are essential. Asking yourself these practical and philosophical questions can help you determine whether you’d be a happy and successful dual-degree student:

Do I have an independent streak? An entrepreneurial spark is key to making your dual degree work for you. It will help you stay focused while you’re completing the required coursework and find your niche as you enter the job market. “We want tomorrow’s leaders, organized people who can see a path that is maybe different from their parents’, or grandparents’, and put that entrepreneurial spirit to work,” said Dr. Nemire.

Do I want to be involved in patient care? Not all dual degrees have a patient care focus, but if that is your passion, consider a PharmD combined with a master’s degree that focuses on a special population, such as older adults (gerontology) or patients with cancer (oncology). These can set you apart from pharmacists with basic training and prepare you for clinical roles that will take center stage as Americans age and cancer becomes a chronic, manageable disease.

Am I an agent of change? With the nation’s health care system in distress due to rising costs, students just entering the profession need to have a sense of social responsibility. According to Dr. Nemire, “It’s really important for the student who is contemplating health care to think about how they want to lead health care.” Student pharmacists definitely shouldn’t pursue dual degrees by default or just to earn a bigger salary—they should be interested in changing the way pharmacy is practiced. “It’s not ‘I can’t be a doctor so I’ll go to pharmacy school,’ or ‘Pharmacists make a lot of money,’” she said.

Am I driven? There’s no escaping it: taking on a master’s degree and PharmD at the same time is a lot of work. Although most dual degrees can be completed in the same number of years it takes to earn a PharmD, it requires an iron will and superior time management skills—but mostly an iron will. Dr. Nemire offers this sound advice: “You have to find what motivates you as a student, take it to heart, and know you are responsible for the learning.”

Do I get the “big picture”? Perspective is hard to define, but it’s a predictor of success for dual degrees—especially in areas where the pharmacist’s role is just beginning to take shape. FDU’s Medco School of Pharmacy looks for individuals who understand health care’s role in the global society. In addition to students with an aptitude for science and medicine, Dr. Nemire said, “we need people who are compassionate, and who understand the humanities.”

Dual degrees give students a rare chance to merge this broad perspective—and the diverse interests it cultivates—with a custom-built career in pharmacy. For future pharmacists trained at FDU, the trajectory of that career is still unwritten, but full of promise, according to Dr. Nemire. “Until now, we have not had pharmacists trained to do all of the things that we need to do,” she said.

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