First-Ever Alaska-Based PharmD Program Will Help Fill Critical Void

Despite a surplus of pharmacist jobs in Alaska, historically about the only way to get the education needed to qualify for one of those positions has been to leave the state. However, that’s not the easiest thing to do when the nearest state is more than 2,000 miles away.

But the situation is set to improve beginning in fall 2016, when the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) — in partnership with Idaho State University (ISU) — will launch the first-ever Doctor of Pharmacy degree program to be offered in the secluded state.

Aside from the fact that students will no longer have to leave Alaska to get a pharmacist education, one of the biggest benefits expected from having a state-based doctor of pharmacy program, or PharmD, is a pharmacist workforce that better reflects the demographics of the local population.

“There’s been a surplus of jobs for many years, so employers have had to rely on temporary pharmacists who fly in from the lower 48 for a certain time period,” says Thomas Wadsworth, an ISU pharmacy professor who recently relocated to Anchorage to serve as assistant dean of Alaska pharmacy programs for ISU. “The problem with that is you can’t expand your clinical pharmacy service with fill-ins. You need permanent professionals in place to develop your patient services and to develop tenure in those services.”

Thomas Wadsworth, a pharmacy professor at Idaho State University
Thomas Wadsworth, a pharmacy professor at Idaho State University

The new PharmD program will begin with 15 to 20 students in the first class and each class thereafter. Courses will be taught via “synchronous distance learning technology” that will involve the UAA campus, as well as ISU’s main campus in Pocatello and its other campus in Meridian.

“Synchronous means that the professor and students at each delivery site [will] interact with each other in real time,” says Wadsworth.

This will be accomplished via two-way videoconferencing. Students and faculty at each site will be able to see and interact with those at the other sites, and faculty will conduct in-person lectures at each participating campus.

“This means that one day the lecture might come from a professor who is physically present in Anchorage but videoconferencing to Pocatello and Meridian; the next day, the lecture might come from a professor who is physically present in Meridian but videoconferencing to Pocatello and Anchorage,” Wadsworth says.

He believes the program will enable Alaskans from diverse backgrounds to begin to fill the void of pharmacists within the state.

“Although it’s not a stated purpose, it’s kind of implied that we are going to be giving preference to residents of this state — whether that means natives of Alaska or … a group that typically didn’t have as great of an opportunity to get this kind of education because they’d have to leave the state, their home culture,” Wadsworth says. “We suspect there’ll be a greater number of Alaska Natives who might apply.”

Robert Robl works with test materials in a lab in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building on UAA’s campus.
Robert Robl works with test materials in a lab in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building on UAA’s campus.

Although Anchorage is 66 percent white, the rest of the population is quite diverse; specifically, 5.9 percent of residents are African American, 6.9 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native, 8.2 percent are Asian, 2.1 percent are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 9.1 percent are biracial, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

With the city’s diverse population come substantial wealth gaps. For instance, 5.1 percent of whites live in poverty compared with 11.8 percent of African Americans, 14.7 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives, 13.4 percent of Asians, and 15.9 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

The program will place great emphasis on “socialization” of students to provide them with the “requisite interpersonal skills to effectively advocate for their patients with other healthcare providers,” ISU’s website states.

“The socialization process occurs during traditional classroom learning, the delivery of community outreach projects, experiential learning, and in small group case studies,” the site explains. “Our goal is to provide a venue for this socialization and experiential learning in Anchorage.”

The PharmD program, which takes four years to complete, will cost about $18,000 per semester, or about $144,000 total — ISU’s out-of-state tuition rate. Because the program is technically offered through ISU, a state-funded university, there is no way to waive out-of-state tuition for non-residents of Idaho, according to Wadsworth. However, he notes that more than 100 scholarships are available for pharmacy students to cover program costs.

The School of Pharmacy at ISU
The School of Pharmacy at ISU

Though the tuition is higher than the average for a pharmacy program at a public university for a state resident ($13,000), it is lower than the average tuition for a private institution ($28,000), according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

Still, Wadsworth says going into substantial debt to get a PharmD degree is worthwhile because pharmacists tend to earn hefty salaries.

In Alaska, pharmacists enjoy an average annual salary of $105,610, or $50.77 per hour, according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development (ADLWD). Currently, there are about 16 job openings per year for pharmacists in Alaska, and the ADLWD expects the occupation to continue to grow at a rapid pace, specifically 25.9 percent, compared with 14.8 percent for all occupations in the state.

Wadsworth says job placement rates in the ISU PharmD program are close to 100 percent. In addition, he notes that graduates of the program in Alaska may be able to pay back their loans through the federal student loan repayment program if they secure one of the many federal jobs in the region.

“The Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Prisons, and the military all have a very large footprint in Alaska,” Wadsworth says. “And almost all have student loan repayment programs for health professionals.”●

Jamaal Abdul-Alim is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.