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Mortar, pestle and calamine lotion: Middle school students explore world of pharmacy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2012 - After breaking a couple of bones and watching an orthopedist work his healing magic on her, Sarah Hyser decided she wanted to be a doctor. But her interest has expanded from mending bones to making compounds after spending a week learning about other health careers offered at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy.

Sarah and 29 other seventh and eighth graders from McKinley Classical Junior Academy were part of the college's inaugural Summer Pharmacy Academy. By the end of last week, Hyser had gained enough hands-on experience with a pestle to mix ingredients in a mortar, including zinc oxide and calamine powder, and produce her own bottle of calamine lotion.

The weeklong program resulted from a conversation between the college's president, John A. Pieper, and St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Kelvin Adams. The college already has pharmacy programs for high school students, but Adams appealed to the college to consider a program for youngsters in middle school. Adams argued that exposing youngsters early to the world of pharmacy might encourage more of them to take an interest in health and science careers.

Although Pieper says the college wants its enrollment to mirror the population in St. Louis, he adds that the summer program was unrelated to a need to fill open jobs in pharmacy. Still, he notes that the state ranks fourth nationally in the demand for pharmacists and was among states, including Texas and California, where more pharmacists were needed. The shortage is greatest in rural communities, he says.

The summer program's general message has focused on a lot more than chemical equations.  Pieper says the main point has been to let youngsters know that a college of pharmacy exists in St. Louis and to help them learn more about the functions of a pharmacy.

"The perception is that it is a drug store on the corner. It's so much more than that," Pieper says. He says the profession has been transformed from simply dispensing medicine to focusing on patient education, health literacy and chronic-disease management. These services are being given more attention, he says, to compensate for a shortage of primary care physicians.

Another transformation involves the growth of pharmacy benefit management companies, such as St. Louis-based Express Scripts, that contract with pharmacies, negotiate drug pricing, process prescription drug claims and offer a mail-order drugs for employers and their employees.

This transformation doesn't reduce the need for local pharmacists, Pieper believes, because of the need for specialty pharmacies to supply compounds used by veterinarians, hospitals and other groups.

"We think there continues to be a niche for compounding," he says. "These are the kind of things Express Scripts doesn't do at all."

At the same time, he says the industry has faced uncertainty over issues such as how the Supreme Court will rule on the Affordable Care Act whose provisions include expanding access to prescription drugs.

"But here is what I tell students: The good news is the baby boomers," the millions of people "hitting 65 years of age" and will need more medications as they age and, to some extent, help with disease management.

"I think pharmacists are ideally situated. They are the most accessible health-care provider in every community. It doesn't cost to talk to a pharmacist. I think we're in a really good spot."

Judging from various student comments, the students didn't have much of an interest in pharmacy careers before the weeklong session. 

"I'm learning about this just as I became interested in understanding what an orthopedist does," says Sarah, the 7th grader from McKinley. She spoke as she mixed ingredients, slowly producing a pink liquid solution that eventually would become calamine lotion.

At another lab table, 7th-grader Ethan Thornton was pouring similar liquid into a container to make his own lotion. But he could have been equally at home in a summer program on designing cars, buildings or other products.

"I want to be an engineer," he says, "but I might consider pharmacy because I like to learn about compounds and how to make things."

An 8th grader, China Page, talked about wanting to become a professional dancer, while still another one, Toni Thomas, said her goal was to become a prosecutor. Like many other students in the program, these two said they appreciated the chance to learn more about compounding medicines and working in lab coats behind counters at Walgreens and other drug stores.

What happens next to the summer program will depend partly on feedback from students. Pieper said the college hopes to maintain relationships with them and encourage them to pursue health careers.

"This is not about creating new applicants," he says. "We have more than we can admit now."

But he says the summer program could become a trajectory through which McKinley students could prepare for health careers.

"We would love for them to choose pharmacy."

As this middle school program ended, the college was gearing up for its ongoing summer project. Unlike the McKinley program, which is open to all city school students, this one is limited to minority juniors and seniors. Enrollment is limited to 25 students from across the region through a competitive application process, college officials say.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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