Patient Care: Telehealth Pharmacy
When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in spring 2020, clinical pharmacists in the University of Florida College of Pharmacy pivoted to telehealth to help patients manage their medications. With health care clinics shuttered and many people staying home, videoconferencing became a lifeline between pharmacists and their patients. The service model proved so effective the college began exploring new ways to deliver pharmaceutical services through telehealth.
In the summer of 2021, the college formalized an alliance with the Shell Point Retirement Community in Fort Myers, Florida, to launch the first telehealth anticoagulation consultation service. Three mornings a week, a clinical pharmacist from the UF College of Pharmacy’s Orlando campus provides medication consultations with Shell Point residents nearly 200 miles away. The pharmacist has access to patients’ medical records and can record notes in real time. They also work closely with the four physicians and four nurse practitioners providing on-site care at the retirement community.
“Anticoagulation medications require careful and constant management, and this new collaboration with Shell Point will allow our UF pharmacists to share their expertise and provide a high-quality service to the Shell Point community,” said John Gums, Pharm.D., FCCP, associate dean for clinical and administrative affairs and a professor of pharmacotherapy and translational research in the UF College of Pharmacy.
The anticoagulation clinic is the first to launch at Shell Point, and the college plans to add a polypharmacy service in early 2022. This telehealth offering will help patients taking multiple medications to reduce their side effects and costs and the likelihood of a drug-induced emergency room or hospital admission.
If the innovative telehealth approach proves successful at Shell Point, then it may open new opportunities for the UF College of Pharmacy to partner with other communities and organizations.
“If a year from now we can show that Shell Point patients taking anticoagulation drugs have better control of their medications, fewer emergency room visits and less side effects, then we will have a good indication that our telehealth program is working and improving their overall health,” Gums said. “Then we can take this telehealth model and explore ways to offer clinical pharmacy services to other communities around the state.”
Education: Reinventing Student Recruitment
In a typical year, recruiters from the University of Florida College of Pharmacy would travel the state and nation recruiting prospective students to join one of the nation’s top 5-ranked pharmacy colleges. But the 2020-21 academic year was anything but typical, and the ongoing global pandemic forced the college to rethink the way it connects with future pharmacy students. Instead of face-to-face recruiting, the Pharm.D. student affairs team created an innovative online recruitment strategy that featured a webinar series, online admissions interviews and made the Pharmacy College Admissions Test, or PCAT, optional for admission.
“Our webinar series addressed topics of interest among prospective students, including admissions tips, interview advice and financial aid, and our student ambassadors held Instagram Live events to talk about the program and answer questions from prospective students,” said Shauna Buring, Pharm.D., associate dean for professional education in the UF College of Pharmacy. “These strategies were so successful, that we are now developing long-term plans to host online webinars every year. They are convenient for students and reach a wider audience than face-to-face activities.”
The college’s Pharm.D. program received nearly 50% more applications in 2021 compared with the previous year and received the most applications of any pharmacy college in the nation. Of those applicants, 247 would accept offers and enroll in the fall 2021 class. Among the group were a record 41 out-of-state students. The college’s leadership attributes the strong out-of-state numbers to the online recruitment efforts and the top 5 ranking.
Similar success was achieved in the college’s Ph.D. and residential and online master’s degree programs. The graduate programs received 60% more applications in 2021. The incoming cohort in fall 2021 included 34 Ph.D. and seven master’s students compared with 23 Ph.D. and three master’s students in 2020. Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Education Maureen Keller-Wood, Ph.D., attributes the increase in applications and enrollment to several factors.
“We were much more aggressive marketing the programs through webinars and emails to prospective students, and our No. 3 ranking among NIH-funded pharmacy colleges generates additional interest,” Keller-Wood said. “There may also be more interest in pharmacy and the pharmaceutical sciences by students who realize the impact that science and new drugs can have on society.”
The college’s eight online master’s programs have always relied upon virtual events and digital marketing to attract new students. In 2020-21, a new marketing strategy led to some remarkable results, with 50% growth in course registrations and some programs doubling their enrollments. Overall, applications increased by 85%, and the college’s online master’s program remained very popular with female and minority candidates.
“A marketing team was formed within the college this year to develop strategies for promoting various aspects of the college’s mission,” said Ian Tebbett, Ph.D., associate dean for entrepreneurial programs. “We have transitioned all marketing needs for the online programs to this unit and expect to see continued success along with significant cost savings.”
Research: UF cancer drug receives FDA clearance for clinical trials
An anticancer drug developed by University of Florida College of Pharmacy researchers Daohong Zhou, M.D., and Guangrong Zheng, Ph.D., has become the first drug of its kind allowed to proceed to clinical trial by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The drug, DT2216, targets leukemia, lymphoma and breast and lung cancers.
The drug acts on a protein called B-cell lymphoma extra large, or BCL-XL, which fuels the growth of malignant cells and strengthens their resistance to therapy. UF researchers developed the new drug using a technology that relies on PROTACs, small molecules that, instead of just suppressing cancer-promoting proteins, help cells break them down.
The FDA’s clearance makes this the first PROTAC drug generated by an academic lab, as well as the first BCL-XL targeted PROTAC, to go to clinical trial.
“We started a great journey about six years ago to develop safer and more effective therapeutics for cancer, and we hope cancer patients can eventually benefit from our research,” said Zhou, a professor of pharmacodynamics in the UF College of Pharmacy and the Henry E. Innes Professor of Cancer Research at the UF Health Cancer Center. Zhou also serves as the UF Health Cancer Center’s associate director for translation and drug development.
The researchers demonstrated in a variety of models that DT2216 suppressed the growth of different types of tumors — including T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, T-cell lymphoma and drug-resistant breast and small cell lung cancers — on its own and in combination with other drugs.
“I feel incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved as a team of postdocs, students and lab technicians working on this project,” said Zheng, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry in the UF College of Pharmacy, who jointly directed the research alongside Zhou.
Zheng said the team has already begun working on the next generation of PROTACs that can target BCL-XL and BCL-2, another protein that cancer cells depend on. “We hope these drugs will have broader applications in cancer therapy.”
The study was supported by a multidisciplinary research team from UF, the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School, Columbia University, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at San Antonio. The team brought together diverse research expertise in cellular and molecular biology, drug discovery and development, medicinal chemistry, hematology and bioinformatics.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Continuing the Momentum
The University of Florida College of Pharmacy has made great strides in recent years diversifying the student body. In 2021, the college had the highest percentage (31%) of underrepresented minority Pharm.D. students among the top 40 pharmacy colleges ranked by U.S. News & World Report and the highest among the health professions colleges at UF. Additionally, more than 40% of the incoming fall 2021 Pharm.D. class are from underrepresented minority groups and more than a quarter are first-generation students.
“The diversity of our student body should closely align with the demographics of the state of Florida, because we want to be representative of the state and people we serve,” said John Allen, Pharm.D., associate dean for diversity, inclusion and health equity in the UF College of Pharmacy. “It’s also very encouraging to see so many first-generational students in this year’s Pharm.D. class. These students have the opportunity to change the trajectory of their families, as we know that higher education can have a profound generational impact on promoting healthier living and overall quality of life.”
Allen was appointed as the college’s first associate dean for diversity, inclusion and health equity on Jan. 1. One of his first goals was to keep the conversations and momentum around promoting diversity and inclusion going well into 2021. The events of 2020 had presented real opportunities for reflection and opened the way for discussions around closing racial gaps and addressing disparities in health care. His challenge was moving the conversations into action and seizing the opportunities to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the college.
“We’re starting to normalize conversations around social determinants of health and the role structural racism has on health,” Allen said. “As pharmacists, we have to understand there are other things that impact health. If we introduce our students to these ideas now, then it will have a long-term impact on health care when they start their careers and care for patients in their community.”
Faculty are putting more emphasis on teaching students to learn and apply cultural competency principles while developing a more inclusive classroom environment that provides equal opportunities for all. Students are learning how to manage bias in the clinical setting and how to improve care for patients from underserved patient populations. In addition, new student organizations, such as the Black Lives Student Coalition and OLEF, which support the Hispanic/Latinx community, are working to promote health equity through their programming.
COVID-19: Shot in the Arm
Teamwork takes many forms at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. While the historic stadium has seen its share of great team efforts by the University of Florida football team, an assembly of health care professionals rallying to end the COVID-19 pandemic likely ranks among the greatest examples of teamwork in the stadium’s 80-year history. At the peak of the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts in April, hundreds of health care workers gathered in the stadium’s club levels to administer vaccines. More than 35,000 vaccines were delivered during the stadium vaccination events that month, and behind the scenes faculty, staff and students from the UF College of Pharmacy joined their UF Health colleagues in championing the public health effort.
“Every vaccine administered during these events was prepared by someone from the UF College of Pharmacy or the Department of Pharmacy at UF Health Shands Hospital,” said Shauna Buring, Pharm.D., associate dean for professional education in the UF College of Pharmacy and lead organizer of the college’s vaccine volunteers. “Pharmacists are uniquely trained to prepare immunizations and served at the frontlines of a highly coordinated effort to vaccinate thousands in our community. Without the leadership and support provided by the college, these mass vaccination events would not have been possible.”
UF College of Pharmacy volunteers actually began their service shortly after the vaccines received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in December of 2020. In hospitals, churches and community pharmacies, volunteers prepared thousands of syringes, administered vaccines and assisted with administrative tasks throughout the year. By the time summer arrived, College of Pharmacy volunteers had contributed more than 3,000 hours of service at vaccination sites in Gainesville and throughout the state.
For the student volunteers, being part of this historical campaign was more than putting their vaccine training into practice — it was delivering hope for a healthier tomorrow.
“One of the patients I vaccinated was so excited to receive the vaccine because she finally gets to see her grandson again,” said Anna Dostie, a third-year UF College of Pharmacy student.
“To hear people say things like that really warms your heart and puts into perspective how pharmacists are part of this historic vaccination campaign.”