All Aboard the Tech Train

Illustration of connected hexagons containing medical icons.

Educators are seeing growing enthusiasm among students in schools embracing emerging technologies significant to the future of pharmacy education.

By Joseph A. Cantlupe

The wide range of academic training for pharmacy has many tributaries, especially in health IT, that touch on data issues from electronic medical records to patient safety, not to mention the increasing need to work as a clinical team with practitioners to improve healthcare outcomes. As healthcare becomes more complex, academic studies in pharmacy informatics are necessary to prepare professionals who can navigate health information technology’s (HIT) contributions within healthcare delivery. While advocates say there is a greater need for informatics training, the movement has been slow, according to a recent progress report in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (AJPE). However, there are pharmacy schools working steadily to expand student opportunities because they see HIT as part of a dynamic future in healthcare.

Informatics educators focus curricular efforts on the utilization of data, information and knowledge along with technology and automation, which is used across the medication-use process to change and enhance healthcare delivery and outcomes. Informatics is viewed as an emerging discipline with significant potential that touches every area of pharmacy practice.

Increased training in the pharmacy setting not only means improved safety and quality of care, but it also lays the foundation for increased employment possibilities, from health systems and hospitals to community pharmacies, industry, business and beyond. The ability to evaluate data and develop solutions using technology also presents an opening for potential entrepreneurs.

“We’ve approached curricular experiences through the lens that informatics is going to be foundational for any type of pharmacy career,” said Dr. Beth Breeden, associate professor in the department of pharmacy practice and director of graduate studies at Lipscomb University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “At a minimum, we want our students and residents to possess basic competencies in this area, while at the same time providing advanced opportunities for specialization in these programs if they choose.” The college’s informatics offerings include a dual Pharm.D. plus health informatics offerings include a dual Pharm.D. and master’s degree or certificate in health informatics, two residencies, required and elective courses in health informatics, IPPE/APPE rotations and internships.

Getting Up to Speed

In the AJPE study (co-authored by Breeden), 132 programs met inclusion criteria for review. Of these, only 47 (36 percent) included an informatics course; 64 percent were required while 47 percent were elective courses. Some 20 percent of the programs provided advanced informatics and/or introductory practice experiences, while 20 percent offered informatics residency programs. Only 17 percent listed certificate and/or graduate programs in informatics. Read the full study.

“Generally, [informatics] is still in a transition phase even though pharmacists are having more responsibility professionally in terms of informatics in implementation and maintenance of systems,” said Dr. Kevin Fuji, associate professor at Creighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions. “I think we’re only going to see pharmacists’ role in IT increase, whether we are talking about practice or in leadership in healthcare.”

Dr. Don Roosan, assistant professor of administrative sciences and certificate coordinator for health information technology, Keck Graduate Institute School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, agrees. KGI initiated a certificate program last year in pharmacy informatics. “Pharmacy has been a little bit behind in terms of informatics,” Roosan said, “and one of the reasons is there has been a lack of training programs. And there haven’t been a lot of people who have had an understanding or grasp of the idea of data analytics or innovative technology.”

Roosan recounted an exchange with someone a decade ago when he asked Roosan why he was getting into the field. “Why is there a need for someone with informatics when we have people who can fix the printer?” Roosan recalled being asked. “Every person I talk to about that laughs now, but that’s where informatics was in 2008 or 2009. That was the period when informatics was at the forefront force for The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which was signed into law on February 17, 2009, to promote the adoption and meaningful use of health information technology. You can see the knowledge gaps.”

Seeing Promise in IT

Despite the concerns and the history of pharmacy in IT, Roosan, Breeden and Fuji said they were optimistic about what they see as the trend of increasing numbers of students seeking studies that offer more specialized IT training or even advanced degrees. And, they said, there will be greater demand. Indeed, employment sectors ranging from health systems and hospitals to community pharmacies to healthcare administration are hiring for positions that require the ability to evaluate, develop and interface with healthcare informatics tools, they added.

Lipscomb University cited Bureau of Labor Statistics projections that employment is expected to grow among medical and health service managers by 20 percent between 2016 and 2026. Lipscomb started early in informatics instruction, launching programs within a year of its founding in 2007. Its health informatics curriculum includes an offering of a dual Pharm.D. and Master’s of Science degree in Healthcare Informatics. It also has launched cooperative agreements with other organizations devoted to HIT.

Besides offering a certificate program, Lipscomb is advancing in development and innovation in emerging technologies in healthcare informatics, including predictive analytics and block chain.

Through a partnership with Hashed Health, a Nashville block chain healthcare company, Lipscomb has developed an innovative block chain-based system that allows graduates and potential employers to verify the academic credentials of its healthcare informatics and student pharmacists, according to the university. Lipscomb also has partnered with other organizations, including IBM Watson, to develop curricular offerings in predictive analytics. The university launched a new Center for Analytics & Informatics to integrate the pharmacy school’s study of data analytics with other colleges at the university, including business and computing and technology.

With all these ventures, “we’ve definitely experienced increased interest from students taking courses and completing programs in healthcare informatics,” said Breeden. “We are delighted to see rapid return on investment for students and graduates of these programs.”

Instruction Innovations

KGI graduated its first certificate program students last year. The school has four different certificate programs, including health informatics and data analysis. Roosan said the class has increased this year, reflecting the growing interest in informatics.

The program’s intent is to help students leverage data through the health information technology certificate program that school officials say exposes them to pharmacy automation, including robotic medication dispensing systems.

It’s important to help students learn the potential of informatics, Roosan said, citing electronic health records as an example. This allows pharmacists to identify patients who are at high risk for adverse effects and maybe should be placed on more effective therapies, with the ultimate goal of providing more efficient care in a team environment.

KGI said its pharmacy informatics program focuses on medication therapy-related knowledge and data within healthcare systems, including information from genomic data, according to Roosan. Pharmaceutical medication safety efforts include leveraging HIT tools that can help carry out medication error reduction plans through technology.

Instruction includes security and HIPAA privacy issues, especially covering different security measures to protect patients’ data and privacy, but also what steps to take in the event of a security breach and how to maintain anonymity. Roosan added that block chain technology has the potential to reduce vulnerable security risks.

KGI has no immediate plans to change course load, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, Roosan acknowledged. “We are pretty well built up, but the way tech changes, it does so rapidly. I look at technology that is so integrated into our lives…it’s going to become a requirement rather than an option.”

Roosan senses the enthusiasm for health IT on campus. “I’m excited about the future, very optimistic. There are opportunities for improvement and I’m very excited about having more of these kinds of people in technology.”

Fuji said that while he sees enthusiasm for increased pharmacy study and Creighton University’s School of Pharmacy and Health Professions is experiencing an uptick in interest, it is not enough to have a certificate program. “In terms of explicit course work, I see more interest in the area of informatics, so enrollment in my elective course has grown,” he said. “We don’t have a specific certificate program in IT right now and we’re not in the process of considering one. I’m not aware of a lot of certificate programs in the context of pharmaceutical training. I don’t think informatics training has reached that level of widespread interest.”

Fuji said he briefly covers IT security issues in his elective health informatics courses and focuses on “how security and privacy needs have changed with the increased use of health information technology and electronic patient health information.” As part of his lectures, he discusses security breaches in which patient data may have been stolen or improperly accessed and what safeguards can be established.

The school’s coursework includes an online informatics elective course to integrate into the doctor of pharmacy program, which Fuji and colleague Dr. Kimberly A. Galt outlined in a 2015 paper. They noted the trend toward technology and pharmacy. “As pharmacists’ roles and involvement with HIT continue to evolve, pharmacy graduates must be prepared to engage it appropriately within their practice to ensure safe, quality care for patients,” they wrote.

“I think it will trickle down,” Fuji said of widespread informatics training. “Our graduates are going to practice and they are going to interact with technology. It’s going to happen. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but I do think it’s coming.”

Joseph A. Cantlupe is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.