Pharmacy needs to engage with, and learn from, its future health professionals, writes Angelo Pricolo

It was a privilege to have the opportunity to address the National Australian Pharmacy Students Association (NAPSA) Congress in Perth this year. It is an organisation that has been around for many years, and is a crucial part of student life as well as being vital to the profession.

Some say that the student voice is not loud enough any more. Certainly if we compare today to the student activism we saw in the 70s when the Vietnam War was rampaging, you can see a difference. But if we just focus on the pharmacy course and the future of the profession, an organisation like NAPSA can still have a lot of relevance.

In recent years both the Guild and the PSA have been more involved with the student body. This link has become more important as the number of institutions offering the undergraduate course has skyrocketed to 17, so increasingly, having access to a national body is essential for communication.

As the students obviously have much to learn from the elders in the profession there is no doubt the reverse is also true. One big change of recent years has been attendance at lectures.

Over the years the number of students attending lectures in person has dropped off dramatically with the new formats being offered by universities making it less attractive to physically go to campus (it might have something to do with parking too).

Talk to past students, though, and you’ll hear that not attending lectures means you lose context and content as well as less engagement in campus life. It also makes teaching less rewarding for the presenter.

When the year group is 200 but only 20 people are scattered in the lecture theatre, it does feel a bit like Australia Post giving the keynote address at the Google conference.

Viewing all your lectures from home does not expose you to good (and bad) communicators first hand nor does it help you develop your own skills. From my experience and talking to my colleagues, many would-be employees drop in a resume. That document is important but not as important as their ability to engage and communicate.

So how is it that at NAPSA the room was full except for a few students attending the PSOTY streams and even those filtered through as they finished?

It could have something to do with the incentives offered for attendance. Maybe we should learn from this and although I’m not saying we adopt the same incentives, we can look at the concept.

It was the first time I have spoken to a group of people and had a live twitter feed behind me. This was a slightly awkward phenomenon to experience but the students patronised it quite heavily. Even though not all contributed text it seemed all read the short comments. It felt a bit like someone calling out or throwing a paper plane in the lecture theatre.

Talking to the students it seems there are common themes that keep emerging. When you talk about the actual course, most responses are glowing and it’s clear most students are enjoying their time at university.

But when the topic shifts to the profession, there is always unrest around future directions. Invariably the ownership debate causes the most concern, as one student pointed out to, “Look what non-doctor owners have done to medical practices”.

We all share their concerns, but the landscape may change and we must assure them we will always oppose deregulation but the eventuality always remains on the radar. Looking at international experience provides some examples of possible outcomes and future direction.

NAPSA was attended by just over 300 students this year. From Victoria 60 students, from NSW 70, from the host state WA another 48, from Tasmania 5 and even 6 from New Zealand. Years 2 and 3 make up the majority of delegates with 230 students and 11 students currently doing fourth year.

Spending time with students always inspires me and encourages a sense of determination to continue to make our profession as health relevant to the Australian public as possible. I’ll let the students have the last word with some of their comments to give us confidence the profession is in good hands.

Jessica O’Connor (NAPSA Secretary and 4th year BPharm student at University of Sydney):

“Pharmacists are equipped with the knowledge and skills to make a definable intervention in the chronic disease management and health outcomes of our patients. Advanced professional development stems from continued education, and the ability to listen to our patients and engage in the communities we serve.

“As students have the ability to engage in problem solving and ensure our knowledge is conducive of positive community engagement and positive health outcomes.

“The profession is bright, and the opportunities that are presented to us as future pharmacists are endless. We have the ability to be open to change, open to forward dispensing and open to engage in positive energy to foresee positive health outcomes for our patients.”

Mark Moharib (4th year BPharm Student at University of Sydney):

“I signed up for the NAPSA Congress with many ideas of what I thought pharmacy is, where it’s going, and where I’d like to go with it – as I’m sure many delegates did. I however left Congress with an expanded view of what pharmacy is truly about, having been challenged and encouraged by many of the presentations.

“One of these presentations – a documentary on the Opioid Treatment Program – provided us all with a great reminder of the positive impact we can have on the lives of our patients. By being a small part of their every day, we have potential to form relationships that can change lives! And it can all start by welcoming them with just a handshake.

“The heart of pharmacy has always been the patient and their health. It’s not just one or the other, but both -together. Patients are not only people with health needs to be met, but they’re also humans that need to know they’re valued and cared for.

“I believe that pharmacy’s nature is evolving to accommodate and provide services that can better combine these two components. It’s future lies in the provision of services that not only improve the patient’s health, but position the pharmacist to be a more central and life-giving part of their lives; a central pillar in the community that is always willing to go above and beyond what is required. I believe pharmacy’s future is bright!”

Shefali Parekh (NAPSA President and 4th year BPharm student at Monash University):

“Throughout my involvement with NAPSA and the pharmacy profession, I have had the pleasure of hearing and speaking to so many brilliant people who have achieved so much throughout their careers to date. It has been my pleasure to discuss the role of student pharmacists, how these professionals view NAPSA as well as the benefit they see from what NAPSA strives for.

“So many times I have been told of the confidence the profession has in NAPSA and that the future of Pharmacy is in safe hands. This is a tribute to NAPSA and all pharmacy students for remaining so involved within the profession. We are an association which offers all pharmacy students numerous opportunities throughout their studies which complement and enhance the quality of university life.

“Through providing opportunities for networking, socialising, education and information, NAPSA is able to benefit members as student pharmacists in order to ensure the pharmacists of tomorrow uphold the standards of our profession. I am thrilled to advocate this in my term as National President.”

Angelo Pricolo is a National Councillor with The Pharmacy Guild of Australia and a member of the PSA Harm Minimisation Committee.

Image: Student of the Year Wild Card finalists at the recent NAPSA conference