With new UAA program, Alaskans can stay in state to become pharmacists

Starting next year, Alaskans can become pharmacists without having to leave the state thanks to a new partnership between the University of Alaska Anchorage and Idaho State University.

UAA announced Tuesday that students can apply to the joint pharmacy program -- the university's latest effort to produce more graduates with specific degrees in hopes that they stay in Alaska and join the state's workforce. Between 10 and 15 first-year students will begin their schooling through the program next fall and hopefully graduate four years later as homegrown pharmacists, said Tom Wadsworth, ISU assistant dean of Alaska programs.

Wadsworth observed that while some pharmacists work in Alaska for decades, others come from Outside and leave within a few years. The new program will reduce that turnover, he said.

"You've got really very little tenure to continue building your programs on," Wadsworth said. "The premise is that we get pharmacists -- clinical pharmacists -- who are reared in the state, who are from here and who will be networked into the pharmacy community here, so they stay here."

Wadsworth moved back to Alaska about eight weeks ago to get the program started, he said. He once served as a clinical pharmacist at a Fairbanks hospital before moving to Idaho. "Having a pharmacy program in Alaska is monumental," he said.

The pharmacy program's students will graduate with doctor of pharmacy degrees from ISU but attend classes on UAA's campus. The program will start with one faculty member in Anchorage next fall and increase to four by its fourth year, Wadsworth said.

ISU already offers the doctor of pharmacy degree at two campuses in Idaho. For some classes, Anchorage students will tune into Idaho-based lectures by video conference. For others, Idaho students will watch Anchorage-based lectures, Wadsworth said.

While the program will give Alaska students preference in the acceptance process, the state of Alaska will not contribute money to ease their tuition prices. Students will pay out-of-state tuition and fees, which total roughly $18,000 per semester, Wadsworth said.

Dan Nelson, president of the Alaska Pharmacists Association, said the new joint program divided the association's pharmacists. There are some, he said, "that are very strongly in support of the program, some who are tepidly supportive, some who are opposed to it."

Those who oppose it fear that the job market for pharmacists has softened and the number of pharmacy schools across the country has already exploded, he said. Personally, Nelson said, "I'm super excited about it."

Nelson is the director of pharmacy at the Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center in Fairbanks. He said a lot of pharmacies outside Anchorage rely on staffing agencies and temporary pharmacists to fill vacancies and "that's not the ideal model," he said. "There's no continuity."

According to a report published by UAA in August 2014, of an estimated 516 pharmacist positions in urban Alaska, 21 were vacant. In rural Alaska, 14 of 157 positions were vacant. The "Alaska's Health Workforce Vacancy Study" pulled data from 2012.

UAA also has an agreement with the Creighton University School of Pharmacy and Health Professions in Nebraska to graduate pharmacists. The university holds five seats for Alaska students to participate in the distance program and get their doctor of pharmacy degrees. They must go to Nebraska for three weeks in the summer, said Jan Harris, UAA's vice provost for health programs.

Harris said the new joint program will join the Nebraska agreement as well as a menu of Ph.D. programs offered by UAA, many of them partnerships or collaborative ventures including WWAMI, a medical school among universities named for the five partner states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

"We have programs that are available here and that are sized for the Alaska market," Harris said. "That's the benefit with partnerships a lot of the time -- we can create a program here, on the ground, that has a smaller size than we would need to have if we were going to have a stand-alone program."

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.