Pharmacy Students Manage Changes to Education During COVID-19

November 12, 2020
Aislinn Antrim, Assistant Editor

Pharmacy Careers, Pharmacy Careers Fall 2020, Volume 14, Issue 2

Although the last ensuing months have created new challenges for pharmacy students, the Pharmacy Times® Student Café series revealed that many students believe the pandemic has helped prepare them for their future careers.

As the coronavirus disease (covid-19) pandemic escalated in March 2020, schools across the country shifted classes online and canceled and changed plans for internships or rotations. Although the last ensuing months have created new challenges for pharmacy students, the Pharmacy Times® Student Café series revealed that many students believe the pandemic has helped prepare them for their future careers.

Edward Foote, PharmD, FCCP, BCPS, dean of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy at the University of the Sciences, said the shift to remote learning happened nearly overnight.

“Some universities were taking a spring break or extending spring break to adjust, but our students and faculty really had to adjust very, very quickly,” said Foote.

Foote said he believed students’ major challenge at first was learning to work in a new surrounding, along with the distractions that can come in a home environment. Family members, pets, and other aspects of the home can make it hard to focus, and the pandemic may have created other responsibilities like caring for family members or contributing financially to their households.

“I think, more than anything, it was just so abrupt that we weren’t prepared,” said Rasha Abouelsaadate, a pharmacy student at the University of the Sciences. “Of course, online learning is not ideal, especially not for pharmacy, but you have to adapt and overcome. I think we did that with the rest of the semester.”

Rotations and internships were perhaps the most impacted aspect of pharmacy education, as hospitals and other hosts canceled or strictly limited the number of people entering their facilities. Many rotations were halted midway through the spring semester, although pharmacy schools worked quickly to find alternatives. Foote said fourth-year students participating in their Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experiences (APPEs) experienced the most changes.

According to Foote, a few hospitals were still willing to accept students, so some fourth-year students changed APPE locations. For example, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore was still willing to take students, and Foote said the University of the Sciences was able to get funding for students’ housing as they transferred to the Baltimore area to complete their APPEs.

“All our students will finish on time, and that’s been a problem at some schools [because] they’ve been so shut out that they haven’t been able to finish,” said Foote. “We have a strong network of alumni and strong network of rotation, so we were able to finish everybody on time.”

As the pandemic continued and the public began to recognize the value of pharmacists, some students said they also reconsidered their goals and motivations in the pharmacy field. Silvia Elakatt, a PharmD candidate at the Chicago College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois, said the chance to be involved in COVID-19 testing reinvigorated her passion for the field and pushed her more toward a clinical environment rather than a retail pharmacy.

“That was the first time I had the opportunity to actually, personally say ‘Hey, this is what I signed up for,’” said Elakatt. “When I took the oath as a pharmacist during the white coat ceremony, this is what I signed up for, and this is what we’re supposed to do, to do all we can to help the health care community.”

Other students echoed Elakatt’s sentiments and said the pandemic has also taught them about inequalities in the health care system. Rachel Goldberg, another student at the Chicago College of Pharmacy, said she quickly realized how pervasive issues, such as access to care, can be.

“As a future health care provider, I’ve found myself much more passionate and knowledgeable about these issues than I think I would have been had I not experienced this pandemic and really focused on these issues,” Goldberg said.

Despite these encouraging responses and opportunities to learn, the students also said caring for their mental health has had to be a major priority with all of the new anxieties of the pandemic, in addition to typical academic stress. Some students said they have taken time to cook, call friends and family, and exercise to decrease stress.

Elakatt said the uncertainty of academia early in the pandemic was particularly stressful for her, and flexibility was key. She said her professors made an effort to remind their students to take care of their mental health.

Having a roommate also helped. “Thankfully, I have a roommate that I was able to hang out with,” said Elakatt. “We play board games, we go on walks, we chill and watch TV, I started reading a lot more. Just things to make sure I’m relaxing and taking care of myself.”

Despite the challenges of the spring semester and ongoing hurdles for pharmacy students, Foote said he’s proud of how both professors and students have adjusted to new conditions and continue to exhibit the value of pharmacy. According to Foote, the ability to adapt quickly is essential in health care and it’s a great lesson for students.

“Really, if I ever once said, ‘Let’s go online,’ it would have taken me 5 years to get this done, and not just from resistance,” said Foote. “We were just forced into doing this so quickly and adapting to change so quickly, and I think everybody—students, faculty—we are surprised at how well we did with this. It was really, frankly, amazing.”

TO VIEW THE PHARMACY TIMES® STUDENT CAFÉ VIDEO SERIES, VISIT PHARMACYTIMES.COM/INTERVIEWS.