UAA graduates help address pharmacy workforce shortages in Alaska

Graduates from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s (UAA) Doctor of Pharmacy Program have proven to be instrumental in helping the state address its pharmaceutical workforce shortage.

 

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The program was created through a partnership between the UAA College of Health and the Idaho State University (ISU) College of Pharmacy and began admitting students in 2016. UAA/ISU Doctor of Pharmacy Program Executive Associate Dean/Associate Professor Dr. Tom Wadsworth said the program has seen 3 classes graduate since 2020.

While residents can access pharmaceutical classes through other schools online, the UAA program has served as the state’s first physical pharmacy program option, Wadsworth said. The program was developed following requests from the Alaska Pharmacists Association.

“It was the last state in the country to not have an in-person program,” Wadsworth said. “There has been such a tremendous shortage of pharmacists in Alaska that the Alaska Pharmacists Association was pleading with the university to start a program. At that time it was very difficult to fill positions for any pharmacist. There were about 100 openings. They started to scale back services and live without pharmacists which was pretty dangerous. It was a major workforce issue.”

Following the completion of a feasibility study, UAA officials determined the school lacked some of the resources needed to launch a pharmacy program, Wadsworth said. So a request for proposals was sent to seek another WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) school of medicine to partner with. A partnership was then formed between UAA and ISU.

“The idea was that we would establish a campus [in Alaska] with 10-20 students per class,” Wadsworth said. “The agreement with the University of Alaska is that it would house the program for physical facilities and technology. [ISU] brings faculty, student government, and community outreach.”

Five faculty members currently work in the UAA program, Wadsworth said. Staff sets enrollment goals based on workforce demand reports, and determined a maximum of 15 students could participate in the program in 2016. The program enrolled 7 students that year and 10 in its second year. This year, 11 students enrolled in the program.

The good news for Alaska pharmacies looking to hire staff is that the program’s students mostly remain in the state following graduation. All of the program’s 2016 graduates continue to work in Alaska, Wadsworth said, with the exception of one Puerto Rican native who recently moved back to the island. Most graduates are native Alaskans who want to stay in their home state.

“They have contributed to changing the health care workforce because they create stability,” Wadsworth said. “You hire a pharmacist from the lower 48 [states] and they come for a few years then leave. You couldn’t develop quality improvement because you had high turnover. We have students working in [Alaska’s] frontier areas and they will create stability and consistency there.”

Wadsworth said the UAA graduates’ commitments to Alaska are not surprising.

“People are liking living there,” he said. “For the most part when you look at the students who go to universities in Alaska, most want to go out and see the world but then they come back. We’re usually getting students who are so Alaska-committed they never want to leave the state. About half our students are like that. A quarter or a third left, got their undergraduate degree somewhere else, realized they didn’t want to live there and came back after a time.” 

UAA faculty help students make connections that help them acquire employment in the state following graduation. They work with local pharmacies to create intern positions and host a campus career fair.

“Employers come to the campus and do mock interviews,”  Wadsworth said. “That really makes connections for the students. They walk away having job offers or knowing what is required in the workforce. And since we have good connections with employers, they notify us when they have openings. There’s usually more jobs than we have graduates but we go to great lengths to make sure our students are connected.”

Pharmacy students have opportunities to work on a wide variety of health issues as well. They collaborate with officials from various fields on Medicaid, workforce development, Department of Health and Social Services, and marijuana industry initiatives.

“We now have a presence in the state,” Wadsworth said. “They just did not have those things before. Alaska is rife with opportunity. There’s so much need there, around mental health and infectious diseases. The school has picked up the banner.”