– JIM DOYLE

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS – Nearly 180 young people graduated this month from St. Louis College of Pharmacy, facing changes in their profession few could have envisioned when they began their studies six years ago.

Not only is the job market wobbly, but the required skill-set has shifted.

Pharmacists today must dispense drugs but also deal with technology’s increasing role in drug therapy; run a pharmacy; learn the ins and outs of Medicare; and navigate the politics of health care reform.

Pharmacists “who are attempting to sustain themselves in the old way, focusing on distribution, are finding it tough to survive,” said Wendy Duncan, the college’s dean and vice president of academic affairs. “And the people who are trying to work in new ways in the clinical setting are having difficulty making a living.”

The mission of St. Louis College of Pharmacy, as with other schools of pharmacy, is to prepare its students for these new uncertainties.

Many of this year’s 178 graduates already have jobs with six-figure salaries. But the demand for newly trained pharmacists has cooled in the past year, leaving about 10 percent of graduates still seeking work.

Duncan said the college was revamping its curriculum to emphasize business skills. She plans to cut the number of lecture classes, focusing instead on individual studies and public service projects that emphasize teamwork, problem-solving and communications skills.

For more than a decade, pharmacists were in high demand, recruited with signing bonuses of up to $10,000. But with the recession, some retail chains have hired fewer pharmacists and used lower-cost technicians to fill the gaps.

Pharmacy benefits managers are competing directly with the big retail chains, offering direct mail deliveries of prescription medicines.

Still, new opportunities are emerging. Clinical pharmacists are becoming more accepted as experts in drug therapy who can help manage a patient’s long-term care.

Sixty percent of the school’s graduates plan to work for retail pharmacies. Others have been hired by hospitals, long-term care, the military, the drug industry and managed care. Fifteen percent will begin clinical residency programs at health care facilities.

“The pharmacist has to be a continuing, self-educated professional,” said Terry Seaton, a professor of pharmacy practice.

Today, computers are used to not only help make better prescribing decisions, but also to administer some medicines. For example, computerized “smart pumps” infuse dosages of drugs for chemotherapy.

Computers also track how well patients are responding to medicines and whether they are sticking to their drug therapy schedules.

“We are preparing our students to select drugs in a particular situation, to modify them as necessary and to monitor them for both efficacy and for safety,” Seaton said.

Ron Fitzwater, head of the Missouri Pharmacy Association, said the college was “on the forefront” in preparing students for “a greater role in health care — in not only helping patients understand their medications, but also working collaboratively with health care providers to manage their drug therapies.”