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UTEP Pharmacy Program Embraces New Role of Professionals in the Community

Last Updated on August 28, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published August 28, 2017

By Robin Stanton Gerrow

UTEP Communications

Pharmacy has evolved considerably since its earliest recorded practice in the 6th century. More than a thousand years later, UTEP is at the forefront of redefining what it means to be a pharmacist in the 21st century with the opening of the University’s new School of Pharmacy.

UTEP Pharmacy Class
Faculty and administrators from UTEP’s School of Pharmacy presented white coats to 41 incoming Doctor of Pharmacy students during a ceremony Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017. The white coats, which represent service, clinical care and professionalism were presented before the school’s inaugural class took its Oath of a Pharmacist. A tour of the School of Pharmacy followed the ceremony. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP University Communications

The school received “precandidate” status on July 11, 2017, allowing the inaugural cohort of 40 students to begin classes in August, but the program has been years in the making.

UTEP has been part of the six-year UTEP Cooperative Pharmacy Program (CPP) with The University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy since 1999. Students in the program began their first two years at UTEP, followed by two years at UT Austin, and they finished the last two years at UTEP. Students who successfully completed the program received a doctorate in pharmacy (Pharm.D.), creating excellent opportunities for UTEP students, but it had a big drawback — there was room for only 12 Miners each year.

In 2015, The University of Texas System approved the creation of UTEP’s new School of Pharmacy, and Jose O Rivera, Pharm.D., was named the founding dean.

“I have to thank our great team of faculty and staff, UTEP administration, the UTEP community as a whole, and our community partners for this accomplishment,” Rivera said about the school’s establishment and progress toward full accreditation. “Even after more than 15 years of graduating students with the co-op program, the pharmacy workforce in the El Paso region is still below where it needs to be, compared to the state average. We have a big gap in terms of the number of pharmacists overall, but we also need more Latino pharmacists. We need more bilingual, bicultural pharmacists.”

The team building the school’s new curriculum saw an opportunity to provide a unique educational experience that would specifically fill the workforce need for those bilingual, bicultural pharmacists. While the Hispanic population of Texas is about 39 percent, less than 20 percent of the state’s pharmacists are Hispanic.

“At a national level, only 4 percent of students enrolled in a pharmacy program are Latino,” Rivera said. “We want to create very special pharmacists by basing the curriculum on what we call ‘IDEAL’ – innovation, diversity, engagement, access and leadership. These are qualities that are necessary for successful professionals in today’s workplace.

“Pharmacists used to be much more passive,” he continued. “But, they are evolving to be much more active and engaged in patient care, especially in underserved areas like ours. When you have an underserved population, not only do you have a lot of needs, you have a lot of opportunity to help.”

The UTEP program also offers the added attraction to students of being a very community-based school, which has also been a big draw in recruiting faculty. For some of those faculty members, coming to El Paso is coming home.

Several of the school’s faculty are former students of the CPP and were very eager for the opportunity to put their specialized skills to use in educating the next generation of pharmacists for the region.

Among those returning faculty are Jacquelyn Navarrete, Pharm.D.; Margie Padilla, Pharm.D.; and Denise Pinal, Pharm.D. Early in their careers, they moved to far-flung places like Boston, Massachusetts; Seattle, Washington; and Austin, Texas, but all came back for the same reason: a passion for teaching, patient care and community.

“My motivation to return stemmed from my desire to be involved in patient care, research and teaching,” said Pinal, who spent time working in pediatric pharmacies in Seattle and Fort Worth, Texas. “The position with the UTEP School of Pharmacy allows me to work in all the areas I am truly passionate about. Moreover, I get to work alongside faculty who were my professors and role models when I was in school. I feel very fortunate to be part of the team!”

While Padilla remained in Austin after completing the CPP, she focused her efforts on the Hispanic community with an eye to returning home.

“After the (CPP) program, I pursued a postgraduate residency experience with Blackstock Family Practice/UT Austin College of Pharmacy,” she said. “I chose this experience because I wanted to continue to work with Hispanic populations and learn how to better manage their medications. When I completed that experience, I moved back to El Paso to care for my father who was terminally ill. My plan was always to return to my community and my family. My heart and passion for pharmacy lies in El Paso.”

Navarrete did her postgraduate residency in Boston, but soon after took the chance to return home.

“When I completed the residency program, I was provided an opportunity to return to my hometown and serve the community of El Paso and UTEP. I returned to provide clinical services to the people of El Paso, and remain close to my family,” she said.

Along with the rest of the School of Pharmacy team, these faculty members are committed to a new type of pharmacy education.

“Because we are a community-based school, we have a better sense of what is happening out there. We aren’t just in the academic building – we are more involved in public health,” Rivera said. “We have to prevent diseases and health problems, not just treat them.”

Another way the curriculum at UTEP is different is the integration of courses.

“We have developed the AIM curriculum: aligned, integrated and meaningful,” Rivera said. “We feel that in other schools there is often a separation of subjects, but we don’t think that is the optimal way for the student to get the most out of an area of study. If those topics are integrated, and paired with meaningful experiences that can be applied to real-world problems and research, the student will better understand how it is used.”

“My experience has been that common models of pharmacy school curriculum are in silos or modular in nature,” Navarrete said. “Our team has been extremely dedicated and focused on integrating all aspects of the curriculum, including experiential education, throughout all years of the program. We hope by this integration, year to year and class to class, students are able to learn and apply elements of study more easily and successfully.”

According to Rivera, most pharmacists start their first jobs as managers. The UTEP school wants to address that, as well as produce well-rounded and culturally educated pharmacists. Some of the ways they plan do that is a requirement of technical Spanish classes, study-away experiences, integrated certificate programs and capstone projects.

“There is a wide distribution of Spanish-speaking households across the country, not just in border regions,” Rivera said. “Employers are coming to us with this need on a national level. But it isn’t just understanding the language, it is understanding the culture –  and I mean culture in a holistic way. We want our students to learn those concepts that can be applied to any other population, so if they go to places serving cultures other than a Hispanic or Latino population, they can still find a way to connect to a patient and improve the health outcomes of that patient.”

The faculty echo this concept.

“My hope is for our program to become a model for future healthcare programs as they begin to rethink how to incorporate culture and global awareness, community engagement and inter-professional team collaborations,” Padilla said. “Together with the help of UTEP, the healthcare community and the general El Paso community, we can better understand how to work with vulnerable populations. Our students will have the confidence, the ability and training needed to serve any diverse community. Knowing how to serve diverse communities is going to make us different from other programs.”

“Students will accomplish coursework in different ‘tracks,’ which include Pharmaceutical Foundations, Global Health Colloquium, Patient Care Practice and Innovation, and Integrated Systems-Based Pharmacotherapy,” Pinal said. “Some of the unique experiences that I’m excited will be available to our students require coursework in professional innovation, leadership and life skills, Spanish for the pharmacy professional, and a required study-away experience. I believe these unique aspects will be advantageous for our students, further equipping them to be well-accomplished, globally aware pharmacist leaders who can effectively serve diverse communities, including our own.”

While the cooperative program only allowed 12 UTEP students each year, the UTEP School of Pharmacy will eventually enroll up to 65 students.

“The initial goal was to start with 35 students our first year, but we found more qualified students that we didn’t want to turn away, so we have admitted 40 students for this fall,” Rivera said. “They are primarily from this region – I believe it is important to continue addressing the needs of the El Paso area. Many of these students come from modest backgrounds, and like the rest of UTEP, we want to provide social mobility for those students. Many of them already understand the culture and the language, and many of them will stay after graduating. Even with the co-op program, 75 percent of our graduates have stayed in the El Paso area.”

Ranielle Espinoza is one of those new students. She graduated from UTEP in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering.

“I’ve wanted to be a pharmacist since I was about six years old,” she said. “At the time, my father was a pharmacy technician, and my mother became ill and lost her eyesight. Even then, I could see how medications could help my mother during her illness and help her regain her sight. I’m very excited to be part of this first class. It is so important to me to give back to my community, and I am so proud that I can make a difference in this border region.”

This next step is a big one for Espinoza, and for the University.

“We have been very proud of the co-op program, and have many people to thank for the success and achievements of those graduates, especially Dr. Steve Leslie, former dean of the UT Austin College of Pharmacy,” Rivera continued. “It was a great program, but I don’t think we were living up to our potential.”