The Challenges in Launching Alaska's First Pharmacy School

A shortage of pharmacists led to a call for pharmacy education in Alaska that echoed across the state.

After years of discussion and planning, a partnership between the University of Alaska Anchorage and Idaho State University (ISU) was solidified and the first pharmacy school in Alaska was established in 2016. Prior to this partnership, Alaska was the only state in the country without a pharmacy school.

Not only that, but the state also had long experienced a high turnover of pharmacists as well as an overall shortage of health care providers in general. Pharmacists from outside of Alaska often did not remain and pre-pharmacy students leaving the state for pharmacy education often did not return.

In 2009, nearly one-quarter of pharmacist positions were unfilled and pharmacy employers reported vacancies taking as much as 15 months to fill, if ever. The shortage of pharmacists was alarming and the call for pharmacy education in Alaska echoed across the state.

In 2007, administrators at UAA responded to employers and the Alaska Pharmacist Association’s call for action and began looking to establish a pharmacy school. Art Nelson, former ISU College of Pharmacy dean, and founding dean of Texas Tech School of Pharmacy was enlisted to complete a feasibility study which ultimately recommended securing a partnership with another university. ISU responded to the call for proposals, and the collaboration process began.

The establishment of the UAA/ISU Doctor of Pharmacy program took years to plan and finalize, as the process presented many roadblocks. Rex Force, vice president for the Kasiska Division of Health Sciences along with College of Pharmacy leadership eventually developed a sustainable proposal funded by student tuition and housed by UAA. It gained traction, and in March 2015, it was finally announced the collaborative Doctor of Pharmacy program would be opening on the campus of UAA.

“It was an exciting time to get such a critically needed program in the state of Alaska,” Force said. “The governor at the time attended the opening celebration and residents and health care providers statewide were very aware of the impact that having a pharmacy school in Alaska would bring.”

Tom Wadsworth was a faculty member at ISU, had previously lived and practiced in Alaska, and was deemed the perfect candidate for the inaugural assistant dean for the Alaska Programs.

“I love Alaska, I love pharmacy, and I love ISU. So, I moved my family of 8 to Anchorage and we started building the program from scratch,” said Wadsworth, who also credits Dr. Catherine Cashmore and Dr. Paul Cady, former dean for the College, in laying the foundation for the school in Anchorage.

The first step was securing a physical building, then preparing the curriculum. Because it would be a synchronous distance learning program similar to existing models connecting the Pocatello and Meridian campuses, the time zone was an issue that needed to be solved.

“It wasn't easy to get all the pieces to come together, but it surely was rewarding,” Wadsworth said. “The school has become a magnet for all things pharmacy in Alaska. Health partnerships and contracts were created and we had more opportunities than we ever imagined.”

With the collaboration in place, there were still many challenges to overcome. Alaskan pharmacy practice regulations had to be updated in order to license students and meet contemporary curriculum needs. Professional associations and employers required policy adjustments to accommodate the advantages of a continual presence of pharmacy students, as well as an academic center for the profession. Student organizations had to be formed, college bylaws changed, and staff and faculty hired.

The road has been interesting and bumpy with Alaska state budget woes, leadership changes, freezing rain, moose collisions, and earthquakes. The UAA/ISU team worked together, even across state lines and with thousands of miles between them, to overcome these challenges.

“ISU and UAA have been resilient and responsive through it all” Wadsworth said.

ISU administrators also commend the faculty and staff at both ISU’s College of Pharmacy and UAA’s College of Health, and UAA administration for their commitment to educating all of the students in the UAA/ISU Doctor of Pharmacy Program.

“Our collaboration with UAA has allowed us to deliver on our commitment to provide Alaska with a well-trained and educated pharmacy workforce that was so badly needed,” explains Force. “Only together have we been able to achieve what we knew would be difficult, but essential.”

Wadsworth added that by being in Alaska, students have also been uniquely prepared with this distinct experience and research opportunities.

“Students here had the opportunity to be the first at many things—the first student-led community outreach programs, the first interprofessional pharmacy practice education interns, the first student leaders in associations and state programs,” Wadsworth said.

There have been many unique leadership, service, and research opportunities such as the Prince William Sound Traveling Health fair, with students visiting remote Alaskan native communities in Prince William Sound while living on a tugboat with other health care professionals for a week.

“These students have contributed to the absolute transformation of pharmacy in the state of Alaska, each of them already have multiple job or training offers, and they’re extremely passionate about pharmacy and about Alaska,” Wadsworth said.

In 2020, the ISU College of Pharmacy celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the College, having been established by its first dean, Eugene Leonard, in 1920. The program began with 3 students then, and now, a century later has prepared approximately 4500 students for graduation, including 15 newly minted Alaska graduates from the Class of 2020 and 2021 who have made the choice to stay and practice in their home state.

“Our graduating students brought a wide range of experiences to the Doctor of Pharmacy program, but what they have in common is a deep commitment to the pharmacy profession and to improving health outcomes in communities across Alaska,” said UAA College of Health Dean Jeff Jessee. “They’ve also shown a remarkable ability to adapt and thrive regardless of the challenges in front of them. I know this pioneering spirit will serve them well in their practice, especially in a state with communities as varied and unique as ours. Their decision to stay in Alaska is a milestone for the UAA/ISU Doctor of Pharmacy program, and it reaffirms that pharmacy education has an essential place in Alaska.”

College of Pharmacy Dean Walter Fitzgerald states, “Particularly during this unusual time, our students have shown the fortitude and capabilities necessary to not only complete their pharmacy education, but to go into the world and make substantial impact in the lives of patients. They are a critical part of the healthcare team and will continue to see success both for themselves and in the health care experience of their patients.”