This month I spoke with Sheri Balogun, who is a clinical pharmacist at Senior PharmAssist, which is on the second floor of the Durham Center for Senior Life.
Q What does a pharmacist do?
A Pharmacists make sure that people get the correct safe and effective prescribed medications. When you get prescriptions filled at a major drugstore, the pharmacists and the pharmacy techs who take the orders work together as a team. The doctor makes the prescription and the pharmacist receives the order, makes sure everything is correct and looks good, and gives it to the pharmacy tech, who then gets it to the customer. Sometimes if there’s a question about the medication—how it’s to be taken and what it does—the pharmacist can answer those questions. Every now and then, the pharmacist will notice that a medication might not work with the customer’s allergies and will inform the doctor about deciding on a suitable substitute. At Senior PharmAssist we definitely keep in mind the cost of medications in case our participants can’t afford them.
Q Okay, so what are your duties as a clinical pharmacist at Senior PharmAssist?
A Compared to a drugstore like Walgreen’s, we don’t actually dispense medications. We consult with our participants (we call our customers “participants”) and have a review of all of the medications they’re taking. And that includes prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and any ointments, herbal supplements, eyedrops, inhalers, and vitamins.
Our participants are seniors, age 60+, and we help them manage their meds. Sometimes people have more than one doctor, or they’re seeing specialists. Each doctor might prescribe medications and sometimes the effects of various medications can be unpleasant or ineffective. Sometimes the side-effects of one medication can work against another one (or even an over-the-counter drug or vitamins), and the person might not realize what’s going on. That’s why we have to review everything they’re taking.
Sometimes our participants can’t afford the medications they need. This is another way Senior PharmAssist can help. Co-pay cards that work with insurance (and Medicare) can bring the price of meds down to an affordable level. And if they’ve been prescribed something that’s really expensive, our job is to find a generic or alternative medication that does the same thing at a lower price. We don’t make changes to anyone’s prescription without consulting with their doctor first.
Q What about Medicare Part D? How does that work in helping people get their meds?
A Medicare works like insurance—There are several companies or programs to choose from, and you want to make sure they cover all of the medications you’re taking. From year to year, companies drop some medications and add others—you don’t want to find out the hard way that your meds you need are no longer covered. The cost might jump from $10 to $100 or more. So from October to December, we are available to help seniors choose the right programs—it’s not easy to do on your own.
Q Are there other ways that you help your participants?
A Well, yes, sometimes people need a little extra help, and we can suggest resources in the community. Different people need different things, but we can guide them to food pantries/feeding programs, and some need incontinence products, glasses … things like that. We have a good list of resources.
Q If a high school student wants to become a pharmacist, what classes should he or she take?
A They should definitely take an interest in science, because once they get to college they will encounter lots of scientific terms and concepts. Math is important because you’ll be dealing with quantities and units of measurements. You can get an early start by getting a pharmacy tech certificate. It’s not a necessary step, but you’ll be able to get a job in a pharmacy and gain exposure to the field. Two things you’ll need are teamwork and leadership. You’ll be working as a team, plus being a pharmacist involves skill, knowledge, and a sense of responsibility. You have people’s health in your hands.
Once you get to college, you should take biology and chemistry. If opportunities for scientific research come your way, take them. Research plays a big part in developing new medications and it’s interesting to see what companies go through to get new meds to market. So you can get your bachelor’s degree in just about anything. Then you can enroll in pharmacy school—There are schools of pharmacy at UNC–Chapel Hill, Campbell University (in Buies Creek), Wingate University (in Wingate), and High Point University (in High Point). They’re usually 4-year programs, depending on the school (the degree you’ll earn is a PharmD).
Q I remember my mom having complications with her meds, but she was afraid to tell her doctor (because, after all, he was the expert). What kind of advice can you give for someone in that situation?
A Don’t think you’re going to upset the doctor if something about your medications doesn’t feel right. Adjustments can always be made to prescriptions. In fact, doctors need feedback—usually they start with a “standard” dosage in mind, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be tweaked to fit the patient.
Q What do you like best about being a clinical pharmacist?
A I’m glad to have the opportunity to help people take care of themselves better. I like working with them and empowering them to feel more in control of their own lives by getting information, becoming informed, and putting that information to good use. I love the teaching element—Knowledge is definitely power.
Durham Center for Senior Life
406 Rigsbee Ave, 2nd floor