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Simulated scenarios, real knowledge for pharmacy students

May 24, 2012

The patient complained of chest pain. “What could it be?” he asked the medical staff. “Am I having a heart attack?”

A team of Drake University pharmacy students and Des Moines University (DMU) medical students set to work on diagnosing and treating the problem. Using the Drake students’ expertise in pharmacology, they discovered that the patient was taking five different medications, all of which provide the body with high amounts of potassium. That was causing hyperkalemia, a potentially fatal cause of abnormal heart rhythms.

Medical students administered medication and dosage based on the recommendations of the pharmacy students. The patient recovered.

It was a collaborative effort that closely replicated a real medical scenario, with one notable exception: the patient was not a human, but a high-tech mannequin. The students were working in an elaborate environment called the High-Fidelity Simulation Laboratory, or “sim lab,” at DMU.

More than 100 Drake students work alongside medical and nursing students in the sim lab every semester, collaborating on a wide variety of medical situations. They can use the mannequin to check blood pressure and heart rates, administer injections and medications, practice incisions and perform other complex tasks. A DMU faculty member runs the simulation and serves as the “voice” of the mannequin.

In the process, the students learn to work together.

“When pharmacy students work with medical students, we learn what each others’ strengths are and how to best utilize those strengths for patient care,” says Katie Pauley, a Drake alumna who earned her pharmacy degree in May. She plans to continue her pharmacy training this summer with a residency at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City.

Close interaction between doctors and pharmacists is increasingly common in hospital environments. Pharmacists, who spend four years soaking in knowledge that medical students may study for only one year, provide potentially life-saving input on drug interactions, dosages, and side effects according to Geoff Wall, professor of pharmacy practice at Drake.

“The medical field is shifting toward a team-based model of patient care,” Wall says. “Those practicing medicine are acknowledging that it’s impossible for one person to know everything to flawlessly diagnose and treat every patient.”

Lukas Lynch, a Drake pharmacy alumnus who’s starting work at a community pharmacy in Minnesota this summer, says doctors value having pharmacists at their side. That appreciation begins to develop in the simulation lab environment.

“They really are glad to have us there,” Lynch says. “They ask for our input, if we have not been able to give it already.”

That testament and lesson is one that DMU and Drake faculty hope is carried into their internships, graduate studies, and careers.