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Student pharmacists help seniors manage healthcare

on November 11, 2014

The Allen Temple Baptist Church’s large auditorium was packed with community residents young and old, as student pharmacists from the University of the Pacific helped seniors grapple with updates to their Medicare plans and manage their medications.

Two or three pharmacy students in lab coats sat at each of the 15 stations. Across from them were Medicare recipients, who lined up their medications between them.

Medicare beneficiary Winnie Lau was just wrapping up her discussion with two students. “I think you bring good luck,” Lau said to Tiffany Wong, the second-year student intern pharmacist who sat across from her. Wong smiled and nodded, then asked her colleague and translator Ally Zhai, “Does she want us to call her next year?”

After Zhai asked the question in Lau’s first language, Mandarin, Lau responded in English. “Yes, you have my number. You have my email,” she said. “I will come back. ”

Lau said that she relies on the clinic to help her understand her Medicare plan because she experienced too many issues dealing directly with Medicare representatives. “I have language trouble and I can’t communicate with government,” Lau said. “These are my representatives. They helped me change my plan.”

The free clinic in Oakland on November 1 was part of a series of health clinics held in seven cities throughout Northern California this fall to help recipients of Medicare Part D, prescription drug coverage better understand their medications and save on drug costs. Student intern pharmacists from the University of the Pacific’s School of Pharmacy & Health Sciences give advice directly to Medicare beneficiaries at the clinics.

Now in their eighth year of operation, these mobile Medicare clinics have served over 2,900 Medicare enrollees and saved seniors and other beneficiaries more than $2.2 million on their out-of-pocket Medicare Part D prescription drug costs, for an average savings of $769 per person per year, the University of the Pacific reported.

Seniors need assistance navigating health plans, the program’s overseer Dr. Rajul Patel said, adding, “After Medicare Part D came into effect in 2007, we realized there is so much confusion.”

Third-year student pharmacist Thi Vu said that Medicare Part D plans change from year to year. “They can change the medications they cover, and the prices of those medications can also change,” Vu said. For 2015, there are 31 different Medicare Part D plans from which enrollees can choose.

Two major components of the student-run clinic focus on safety and economy. First, the student pharmacists examine all of the patient’s medications and their medical history, and look for drug interactions. “We review all of their medications to check for drug errors,” said Vu. Drug errors can include side effects or drug interactions that their doctor may have overlooked. “Then, we contact their doctor with anything that we find,” she said.

These conversations need to be made delicately as physicians can be sensitive if they are questioned, said Dr. Patel. “The students try to keep it informative as opposed to prescriptive,” he said.

After the medication therapy management, the student pharmacists determine which Medicare Part D plan would save the patients the most money, based on the combination of medications that they take. They enroll the patients into the new plans on-site at the clinic.

The student pharmacists also offer vaccinations, screen for diabetes, and check blood pressure, cholesterol and bone-density. They also offer advice for smoking cessation.

Assefaw Haile, an Oakland resident who moved to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia in 2004, said the students provided everything he needed to manage his medications, even administering his flu shot. “I like the services, especially when they explain my coverage. I prefer to come here instead of the doctor,” Haile said. “They did everything for me.”

Conversations with doctors can sometimes be difficult for patients to manage, and the clinic helped make those conversations a little bit easier, said James Arrington, a case manager and project manager with Allen Temple Baptist Church’s Health and Social Services Ministry.

“Here they are in a safe environment,” said Arrington. “They feel comfortable asking questions, whereas they may not feel comfortable challenging their doctor.”

The extra work with older patients is especially important, added Craig Barker, a pharmacy fellow on faculty at University of the Pacific. “This is the patient population pharmacies see a lot,” Barker said.

Student pharmacist Vu said the day was meaningful for her because she saw pharmacists help so many people. “We’re not only practicing what we learn in school, we develop our communication skills and improve patient interactions,” Vu said. “I want that kind of experience for everyone.”

Medicare’s Open Enrollment period started on October 15 and wraps up by December 7. For more information on enrolling in Medicare, visit

The University of the Pacific’s next mobile Medicare clinic is in Berkeley on November 22 from 10am to 6pm at the Ed Roberts Campus at 3075 Adeline Street. To make an appointment, call 510-841-4776, ext. 3112. Beneficiaries attending the clinic should bring their red, white, and blue Medicare card, and all of their medications.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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