The unique challenges that pharmacy learners encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic reinforce their importance in the professional pharmacy setting.
The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced several aspects of day-to-day life, including work, social events, and academics. Pharmacy learners, preceptors, and practicing pharmacists in various settings have all experienced a change in their daily lives due to COVID-19.
During these times, learners have found numerous ways to cope with this new shift and have shared how it impacted them mentally and academically. This article will explore and summarize the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on university learners, with an emphasis on pharmacy learners.
A study was conducted in New York, a state heavily impacted by COVID-19, with 909 college learners to analyze the outcomes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and learners’ psychosocial health functions during the lockdown period.
Due to campus closures, 15% of learners were forced to relocate, with 4 becoming homeless.1 Some learners remained employed, while the majority (78%) experienced job loss.
Thirty percent of the learners surveyed reported having difficulties transitioning to working from home, with 30% also having the inability to go to school or training for weeks and were forced to withdraw from classes. Almost 40% of learners had difficulties traveling due to a lack of access to public transportation during the lockdown period.
Close to 90% of learners indicated severe symptoms of depression, with two-thirds reporting severe symptoms of anxiety. These results were even higher than prior published data, ranging from 15% to 48% (for depression) and 6% to 51% (for anxiety). This suggests a severe need to provide support for learners in managing their mental health.1
In comparison, Texas A&M University studied stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect on learners’ mental health, including depression, anxiety, and coping mechanisms. Data from this study showed that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected learners, with 48% experiencing moderate-to-severe levels of depression and 38% reporting mild-to-severe levels of anxiety.2
Academically, the vast majority (90%) of learners had difficulty concentrating, with 76% having difficulty adapting to remote learning/distance learning.2 Emotionally, 89% of learners experienced health- and lifestyle-related concerns, such as fear and worry regarding their health and the health of their loved ones. Less than half (43%) reported adequate coping with COVID-19 pandemic-related stress.2
In addition to the social and emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic also affected the role of student pharmacists in clinical, community, and classroom settings. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns forced schools and colleges of pharmacy to implement new online learning methodologies to ensure that students could continue in their courses.
Although the abrupt shift to online learning has been challenging for many learners, the implementation of telemedicine services in health care has actually helped many pharmacy learners, as well as pharmacists and preceptors, continue providing direct patient care.3 This shift in the academic sector was significantly seen by pharmacy learners in first- through third-year didactic classes and in their fourth-year during advanced pharmacy practice experience (APPE) rotations.4
Fortunately, with adaptation in learning platforms, learners on APPE rotations have still been able to have patient interaction through involvement with telemedicine services, as well as COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts. Despite the stressors of the past year, most learners said the pandemic has only reinforced the value of the pharmacist and their desire to enter the field.4
While hospitals and other training institutions tried to de-densify their workspaces, pharmacist preceptors built curriculum experiences for APPE rotations using various hybrid learning styles. Preceptors and academic pharmacists have partnered to create experiences that include virtual patient case discussions, journal club presentations, and continuing education webinars.5
With the transition to online learning, the majority of learners reported positive experiences working with a variety of preceptors from different specialties (81%) and collaborating with learners from other universities (62%).6 Despite the negative aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, most learners surveyed felt that the pandemic only reinforced their pride within the pharmacy profession.6,7
Pharmacy education is becoming more technologically-based each year, with the COVID-19 pandemic escalating the transition. However, some student pharmacists still had resistance to the changing learning environment and conditions.
A study conducted by Ruehter et al. showed that hybrid learning and supplementary online education is still beneficial as opposed to traditional in-class learning.7 This led to the conclusion that pharmacy courses, including laboratory-based simulation activities, produce similar performance when delivering content online. Further research into hybrid or mixed-delivery models may enhance learning without affecting assessment performance.
In a study conducted by the University of Kentucky Lexington College of Pharmacy analyzing the effect of online learning for first- and second-year pharmacy learners, it was concluded that most pharmacy schools already had the equipment to use online and technology-based learning resources. With that foundation, transitioning from in-person to online learning was more seamless than expected; however, there were still some challenges.
One challenge was lab-based courses for first-year pharmacy learners. Lab-based lectures that typically require hands-on practice posed the greatest challenge in a virtual platform.
At the same time, classes such as patient counseling can be effectively taught through recorded or live online lectures. This study also revealed that student pharmacists across their first and second professional years performed similarly academic-wise despite transitioning to online course formats, with no significant differences in remediation rates.8
In summary, it is intriguing to consider how COVID-19 negatively impacted the world yet had a positive impact on some pharmacy learners in their academic and professional lives. It is also fascinating to note that at the start of our research, we anticipated finding articles that mainly highlighted the negative aspects of COVID-19 on pharmacy learners due to the globally shared experience of the pandemic.
Research data has shown that stress and triggers negatively affected the transition to fully online learning and how pharmacy learners adapted and were equipped to suddenly transition into a new way of life. The unique challenges that pharmacy learners have encountered during the pandemic enhance their value academically and reinforce their demand and importance in the professional pharmacy setting.