Pharmacy, VA partner to provide innovative care to veterans in Alabama

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Embracing technology, students and faculty at the Harrison School of Pharmacy are fulfilling their commitment to care for those in Alabama and deliver accessible health care through the Population Health Clinic.

The clinic is a collaboration between the Auburn University Pharmaceutical Care Center, located within the Harrison School of Pharmacy, or HSOP, and the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs, or VA, Medical Center.

The innovative clinic was recently recognized by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, or NACDS, receiving the NACDS Foundation Scholarship Award, one of just five awarded in 2020 out of more than 140 submissions. It marks the third year in a row for HSOP to win one of the NACDS awards.

“The Population Health Clinic is a great example of how our outstanding faculty and students are working to develop innovative health care programs to improve the health outcomes of those in Alabama and beyond,” said Richard A. Hansen, dean of the Harrison School of Pharmacy. “This is a very well-deserved honor, recognizing a meaningful collaboration between the Harrison School of Pharmacy and the Veterans Administration.”

Pharmacy students working in the clinic review electronic health records to identify patients who would benefit from medication adjustments, immunizations or laboratory monitoring.

After identifying these patients and reviewing with their preceptor, students contact them by telephone to discuss the findings from the record review.

“We are thankful that NACDS Foundation has provided the opportunity to expand our population health-based telepharmacy service to meet the needs of a rural veteran population and to develop a care model that can be translated to other pharmacy settings,” said Courtney Gamston, professor of experiential practice and a member of the HSOP Class of 2013. “The need for telepharmacy has never been more apparent, and population management is an efficient way to identify the patients at greatest need for these services.”

During the 2019-20 academic year, students reviewed nearly 900 patient records and contacted more than 200 individuals.

Their efforts resulted in almost 2,000 interventions, including ordering labs, recommending and ordering hundreds of vaccines, initiating new medications, providing medication and disease state counseling, providing prescription extensions to maintain chronic medication adherence, referring to other providers for additional care and performing annual Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, or PDMP, reviews.

Even with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nature of the clinic allowed students to continue working with patients and providing care at a time when many needed it most.

“The innovative structure of the Population Health Clinic has allowed students to continue offering this valuable service to veterans around the state, even as we navigate life with COVID-19,” Gamston said. “The educational experience for the students also emphasizes how tools like telehealth and embracing technology can allow them to continue providing care to their patients under unique circumstances.”

HSOP has a long-standing relationship with the VA system in Alabama with students rotating at clinic sites and faculty members collaborating on outreach projects. Being familiar with the relationship, Garrett Aikens, a member of the HSOP Class of 2011 and the associate chief of pharmacy at the Tuscaloosa VA, reached out to discuss his telehealth program and identify opportunities for students to work with the veteran population.

“This experience is valuable because it allows students to connect what they learn in the classroom to the real world,” Gamston said. “They apply their knowledge in a slower-paced, more controlled environment early in the educational process. Doing so allows them to see the value of their education, as well as how they can use that education to positively impact the health of their patients.”

Aikens actively uses telehealth in his practice at the VA and sees the benefits every day, particularly with patients in rural areas.

"Telemedicine has provided many patients the option for more immediate access to their health care providers, particularly in west Alabama where over a third of our veterans are considered rural and would have to travel long distances for an appointment or are physically disabled, making travel difficult or not an option," Aikens said.

Called the Population Health Clinic, it employs the practice of looking at a certain population as a whole and utilizing statistics and analytical data to identify ways of helping patients.

After reviewing statistics, those in the clinic can develop strategies for intervention. Common areas analyzed could include vaccination rates, medication adherence, appropriate medication therapy, need for laboratory evaluation and many others.

In the project with the VA, students are looking at patient care centered around cardiovascular disease risk reduction.

While this experience provides a valuable learning opportunity for students, it also provides a service for a respected population that may not always have easy access to health care.

“Patients can live several hours away from the closest clinic location. Telephonic care improves patient access to health care and can also reduce the time they need to travel to and from the clinic for an appointment,” said Pamela Stamm, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice. “While we have these patients on the phone, we can address other questions or concerns they may have. This program has also allowed us to connect with patients who have been out of care and are due for clinical appointments and/or labs and to get them linked back in with their care teams.”

For students, the experience provides a real-world opportunity to engage with patients and help improve health outcomes within an innovative practice structure. For some, the ability to work with a patient population like veterans makes it even more special.

"The Population Health Clinic provided me with an opportunity to help serve our veterans, a patient population that is very important to me since my father was in the military for over 20 years," said Callie Seales, a member of the HSOP Class of 2022. "These veterans usually have a wide range of medical conditions, and I believe this program allows us to make a difference in their overall health and quality of care. I know that some of my interventions made a meaningful impact for these patients, and I really enjoyed the overall experience in the clinic."

Leaning on Auburn’s land-grant mission, the clinic embraces the opportunity to assist this population and improve their health outcomes.

“Working with the veteran population, students have gained perspective into the needs of this community and realized just how much care and attention its members need,” Gamston said. "They have really enjoyed being able to be a part of bridging gaps in care and moving their patients towards improved health.”

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