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Interview

How to Better Address the Well-Being of First-Year PharmD Students


November 16, 2020

By Julie Gould

Olufunmiola AbrahamRecent research analyzed stressors that are often faced among students enrolled in Doctor of Pharmacy programs, and also assessed strategies that can be utilized to address these stressors and promote well-being for these students.

According to the study, students in their first year are often thinking about activities that promote personal well-being, manage extreme stress, and proactively prevent the detrimental effects of burnout.

To better understand the findings of the study, we spoke with Olufunmilola Abraham, PhD, MS, BPharm, assistant professor, University of Wisconsin‑Madison School of Pharmacy. She highlights the clinical implication of the study and explains why training on how to cope with stress should begin when these students are in their introductory clinical years.

What existing data led you and your co‑investigators to conduct this research?

One of the reasons I was interested in looking at this was, one, I teach about personnel management and leadership for our first‑year students at the pharmacy school. Through this course, we invite experts that are familiar with the field and wellbeing, one of which is my co‑author, Jessica Babal.

A lot of studies have shown that there's limited knowledge about the actual strategies that student pharmacists are using to improve their wellbeing. More studies have focused on the stressors they face, burnout, and a lot of challenges they face. However, we also know that somehow, pharmacy students are finding ways to maintain their wellbeing and still be successful in their pharmacy education.

We wanted to focus on what hadn't been explored, including what their coping strategies were. That's why we started looking at this.

Can you describe that and its findings? Of those findings, were any of them particularly surprising?

That's a great question. For our study,1 one of the key things we were interested in was not just using survey data. Other studies that have looked at pharmacy student stressors have typically used surveys or other means of data collection.

One of the things we realized was it was important to have students reflect on their experiences and put that down on paper. We ask students to take some time at home through an assignment, reflect on their experiences, and describe how different factors impacted them, and how it either promoted or did not promote their wellbeing.

Some of the key findings we found out is that a lot of pharmacy students are aware about the need to be creative in making sure they do well in pharmacy school, and then identifying what those strategies are. Four key things we found, one was the need for institutional resources and student accessibility to those resources that promoted their wellbeing.

Examples of that might be things like making sure there are library resources. For example, now with COVID, making sure they have time they could study in, not just being in their apartment, having access to office hours with instructors or therapy sessions that help them during a semester. Easy access and having multiple resources were very important.

Another key finding was that a lot of students figured out that to be successful in pharmacy school, time management and being able to plan and organized a hectic schedule of assignments, clinical training, working a role in caring organizations, or co‑curricular activities, that was really important to help them stay on track.

Students also recognized that maintaining their mental and physical health was really important, either through support from family or through social relationships, and maintaining those, were really critical to relieve the stress of pharmacy school.

I would say one of the most notable for me was students being open to share how faculty interactions, either being positive or willing to offer office hours, really impacted their wellbeing. It's something we think about, but often at times, enough emphasis is not placed on the role of faculty in really facilitating student wellbeing, and that those interactions are very crucial.

I'll stop there because there's so much I could say.

What are some of the possible real‑world applications of these findings in clinical practice?

That's a critical point. Again, for this study, we were looking at pharmacy students. What we know is when you translate this, we're training pharmacy students to be excellent future pharmacists.

We know that pharmacists also experience a lot of stressors, including burnout, fatigue, occupational fatigue, and other stressors that impacts the quality of care that they provide to patients. That was one of the reasons why we said, let's even start looking at how this happens earlier on in pharmacy training.

Why does all this matter from a real‑life standpoint? We know that a lot of pharmacists are struggling with stress and burnout. One of the things why I think it's important to start training students about how to cope with the stressors, that's why this line of research matters.

I think we need to start training them when they're in their introductory clinical years or advanced clinical training, how to cope with stress, and how to promote their wellbeing, such that when they are actual pharmacists, they've practiced and be mentored in handling these kinds of stressors that impact the quality of care they provide to patients.

Also, from an institutional standpoint, I think it's really important for universities to be aware of student wellbeing and be creative in using system and individual level strategies that students have said actually promote their wellbeing. I'll stop there. Is that enough or would you like more?

Do you and your co‑investigators intend to expand upon this?

For now, honestly, how I started working on this is I teach this every year at the pharmacy school in the spring semester, to our first‑year pharmacy students. I believe it's really important that they're getting this information very early on from the first year.

It's going to set the trajectory for their experience at the university, their experience in pharmacy education. I'm a professor, so I'm not just doing the research. What's near and dear to my heart is that the 130‑some students I get every year are being equipped, and are being mentored and trained, and are thinking about how their wellbeing impacts them as future pharmacy leaders.

I know Dr. Babal also does the same with medical students. I don't know if we'll be collecting more data in the future. We've talked about that. We're not doing that right now. We've been focusing a lot on how do we teach them? How do we prepare them?

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think the article really does a good job of summarizing what we learned through the study. We have an article that Dr. Babal and I also wrote. She's the first author on it, and it was just published earlier this year.

It's titled "Student Pharmacists Perspectives on the Factors that Influence WellBeing."2 In that research, we were looking at what influences either system‑level factors or individual level factors influence their wellbeing.

In my manuscript, we talk about actual strategies that can be implemented, or students already implementing. That's the only thing I'll want to draw your attention to, is published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education, in case that might be of help.

About Dr Abraham

Olufunmilola Abraham, PharmD, is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin‑Madison School of Pharmacy and is in the Social and Administrative Sciences division. She is a pharmacist by training with other clinical training, as well as a health services researcher. Dr Abraham does work looking at improving medication use, and the health and wellbeing of young people.    

References:

  1. Abraham O, Babal JC, Brasel KV, Gay S, Hoernke M. Strategies first year doctor of pharmacy students use to promote well-being. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 2021;13(1):29-35. doi:10.1016/j.cptl.2020.08.005
  2. Babal JC, Abraham O, Webber S, Watterson T, Moua P, Chen J. Student Pharmacist Perspectives on Factors That Influence Wellbeing During Pharmacy School. Am J Pharm Educ. 2020;84(9):ajpe7831. doi:10.5688/ajpe7831

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