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The digital revolution is well on its way, and the realm of health care is no exception to that. Health care workers now and in the future require more digital skills than ever before, so it’s important that pharmacy schools equip their students for this shift. 

No one understands this better than the students who have been navigating schooling and interviewing and conducting research in the midst of this pandemic, which has only accelerated the move toward digital.

Pharmacists for Digital Health started as we felt the need for a platform for students to explore nontraditional pathways in digital health and learn skills that are not included in the curriculum of health professional schools but are needed for the future leaders of our health system,” said Amir M. Behdani, a second-year Pharm.D. student and co-founder of the student group. “We can use those skills to solve real-world problems that exist in our health system in order to fulfill our ultimate goal of improving patient outcomes.”

He and PDH co-founder Emily Ko, also a second-year Pharm.D. student, saw the opportunity for digital tools — some less prevalent, like artificial intelligence or virtual reality, and some more commonly used, like text messaging — to be used in community pharmacies to keep patients connected to their practitioners and on top of their health care plans between appointments.

“Access to health care equals access to data,” said Ko.

One of the ways they’re accomplishing this is through an initiative with the Center for Healthy Hearts. They created a system that allows patients to share health data including blood pressure, blood glucose and other relevant parameters with CHH providers through encrypted text messages, expediting treatment processes and increasing continuity of care between clinic visits. Read more about this initiative, called myDigitalARC, and their second-place finish in the national 2020-21 PQA Healthcare Quality Innovation Challenge in an article published by VCU School of Pharmacy earlier this summer.

In another project they’re working on, called the Pharmacy Diversion Monitoring Program, they’re designing a comprehensive, proactive diversion monitoring system at Sheltering Arms Institute. This system accurately and efficiently assesses every chain of custody gap in controlled substance management and has already significantly improved the workflow at this institution in just the few months it’s been in place. Sheltering Arms is actually the first client for their startup, KBHealthTech, LLC, through which companies can hire them to solve problems in health care using data science applications.

“We’re pharmacists first,” said Behdani of the areas they’re focusing on. All of the digital skills they’re learning could be used in their pharmacy careers in some way, and more than that, these skills are broadening the scope of what pharmacists can contribute to patient care and improving health outcomes. “I believe digital health will take over some of the traditional pathways in our health system, and it is essential for pharmacists to develop these skills to expand their scope of practice, whether they are pursuing traditional or nontraditional pharmacy careers.”

Innovations such as these are where PDH and CPPI are aligned. As the two groups have similar missions, PDH will be the first student group to be affiliated with CPPI. More than that, PDH is the first pharmacy student group of its kind in the country.

“Every time I hear them talk about what they’re doing, I get very excited about where they’re headed and what we can accomplish together,” said Teresa Salgado, CPPI assistant director.

CPPI faculty member Dayanjan “Shanaka” Wijesinghe is the faculty adviser for PDH, and CPPI plans to further support the new student group through mentorship, collaboration on community pharmacy projects and the new CPPI Digital Health Lab in the Smith Building. Formerly a student computer lab, Smith Room 350 is in the early stages of being converted to a working space where students and faculty can brainstorm and contribute to these and other innovative projects. It will also house the VCU School of Pharmacy 3D printers and virtual reality headsets.

The students of PDH plan to train their members in data analytic software such as SQL and Python programming languages in an effort to supplement pharmacy curriculum. They’ve already hosted two workshops this year focusing on digital productivity tools, digital task management tools and navigating KNIME software

Because of PDH’s partnership with KNIME Analytics, PDH members can earn KNIME certification free of charge. Through this partnership, PDH is developing a data science track with a focus on digital health and health care applications. This track will help future clinicians tap into the power of data science themselves, relying less on the expertise of data scientists or tech services.

These and other digital health competencies will be included in the Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience module PDH is developing with funding from a VCU REAL grant they won in the spring.

“The VCU REAL grant gives us the ability to set up an APPE rotation to put the skillsets we gain during our years in class to use, developing real digital health applications and solutions before even graduating,” said Ko.

Although the student group began just this year, its students are already making great strides in increasing efficiency in community clinics and identifying and meeting the knowledge needs of pharmacy students to increase their competitiveness in this digital age. And these tools are just the beginning: Ko and Behdani are scheduled to share some of their work at the upcoming AACP Digital Health Institute.

“As students, we are learning how data play into patient care and how data work at the core despite technology’s always-evolving face,” Ko said. “We are so excited for PDH to become a platform for our peers to gain transferable skillsets and develop their own health care solutions — and maybe even health tech startups. This is how we are preparing for the rapidly developing applications of digital health and how we will become the future of pharmacy.”

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