Practice What They Preach

Pharmacy, medicine, and dentistry students become their own first patients

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Patricia Chase, PhD, the Gates Wigner Dean of the WVU School of Pharmacy, holds a quote often attributed to Gandhi near and dear to her heart: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

As a healthcare professional and educator, she believes that future providers who want to see people become healthier as a result of their work must accept personal responsibility for their own health.

In short, they must first practice what they intend to preach.

The WVU Center for Healthy Practitioners is a collaborative effort that allows students to do just that.

With the help of a $75,000 grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, Dr. Chase worked with WVU Health Sciences Center faculty to design and launch the initiative: Anne Cather, MD, in the School of Medicine, Louise Veselicky, DDS, in the School of Dentistry, Travis White, PharmD, in the School of Pharmacy, and Matthew Gurka, PhD, in the School of Public Health.

The WVU Center for Healthy Practitioners builds off of an initiative Chase implemented in the School of Pharmacy in 2008 called My First Patient. Since that time, all first-year students in the School of Pharmacy’s Doctor of Pharmacy program undergo health screenings and counseling aimed at improving their health status.

Third-year students conducted screenings in the school’s health education center. Each first-year student identified a goal that he or she wished to achieve, such as losing weight, beginning an exercise plan, or quitting smoking. In doing so, the students became their own first patients.

Chase likes to tell the story of six student pharmacists who, after being screened through My First Patient, discovered that they had high cholesterol. They were shocked. As it turned out, they lived in the same fraternity house, where the cook fried many of their meals, including veggie burgers.

The students took control of their diets and brought their cholesterol numbers down to normal levels without the use of medication.

With the establishment of the WVU Center for Healthy Practitioners, the program now includes first-year medical and dental students, in addition to first-year pharmacy students.

All students underwent health screenings and oral health assessments, which were added to the program this year.

Students choose one health goal, develop an action plan to improve their health in that area, implement the plan and evaluate their progress through a year-end survey. Follow-up surveys are administered during all subsequent years students are in school to determine whether students met their goal in the first year, whether they have maintained the changes made in the first year, and whether the students’ participation in the program affected their attitude toward an interdisciplinary approach to wellness.

“The My First Patient program has uncovered at least seven major health risks experienced by students in the program, including diabetes, high cholesterol, tobacco use, obesity, stress behaviors, and use of alcohol and medications. These mirror the major health problems of the people of West Virginia,” Chase said. “Students have achieved definite, measurable improvements in their health habits and in their actual health, as measured by follow-up cholesterol testing and other clinical factors.”

Nicole Farabaugh, a third-year pharmacy student from Trafford, Pennsylvania, has now experienced My First Patient from both sides. In her first year, she underwent health screenings, and this year, she performed screenings on first-year pharmacy, dental, and medical students.

“I think as a first-year student going through this program I was really intimidated, and I was kind of shocked because I just wasn’t familiar with a lot of the technical terms and a lot of the services the third-year pharmacy students were providing to me,” she said. “It’s interesting to see it from this perspective because I understand more now, and I’ve learned a lot the past couple years that has prepared me to provide these services. I think my attitude has gone from ‘Wow, I’m really scared’ to ‘OK, I think I can do this.’”

Farabaugh said she enjoyed working with students in the other health professions schools because it gave her a first-hand look at what her future job as a pharmacist will be like.

“When we get out there and we’re practicing as pharmacists, we’re going to have to work with a lot of other professions and collaborate to help benefit the patients,” she said. “I think this project was a great way to start collaborating with other professions and working together in the future.”

Eventually, Chase’s goal is to bring the remaining health professions schools and programs on board so that all students in the Health Sciences Center are participating in My First Patient.

“By doing this, we will not only serve our students,” she said, “but we will also serve the many West Virginians for whom they will care throughout their years of practice.”