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Editorial: Cause to worry about pharmacists

Published:Friday | January 22, 2016 | 12:00 AM

A worrying statistic has emerged about the potential competence of pharmacists in Jamaica, but which also says much about how people are educated here and the urgency for reform. The demand is for acceleration away from the pedagogy of rote to one where learning is centred on critical thinking.

In that regard, Ronald Thwaites, the education minister, is on the right track. He only has to go faster.

Most Jamaican pharmacists are trained at the University of Technology (UTech), whose School of Pharmacy has an enrolment of more than 350 students. Its graduates, before they become fully registered, are required to complete a one-year internship, after which they go through an assessment by the profession's regulator, the Pharmacy Council of Jamaica, six of whose 10 members come from the body representing professional pharmacists, the Pharmaceutical Society of Jamaica (PSJ).

It would be difficult to sustain an argument of bias and a wish by the council to establish undue entry barriers into the profession. But pharmacy is serious business. Pharmacists are medication experts. They are required not only to have a broad understanding of the effects of drugs on the body, but should be capable, in tandem with doctors, of guiding and monitoring the use and transitioning of medication to the benefit of patients.

Their skill, therefore, must extend beyond reading the notoriously bad handwriting of doctors and the robotic dispensation of drugs. Pharmacy students, we expect to be among the bright lot.

Given their crucial role as health-care professionals, whose actions can negatively impact people's health and lives, it is understandable that the Pharmacy Council requires a 70 per cent pass mark for the exams it sets before accrediting pharmacists. Of the 2015 cohort of interns, 50 per cent failed to make the cut. What is more important is the reason.

According to the council's registrar, Dr Radcliffe Goulbourne, the big problem is the ability to think critically. In other words, there is incapacity to apply information in their heads to real-life situations.




This, of course, is not a problem peculiar to pharmacists or students trained at UTech. It is all too common across Jamaica's education system, as was noted by Helen Campbell-Grizzle, the dean of UTech's College of Health Sciences, of which the School of Pharmacy is a member. This phenomenon contributes to Jamaica's low labour productivity and, ultimately, the country's poor economic performance and underdevelopment.

It demands, as Minister Thwaites has been suggesting, a new pedagogy in an environment of ideas and problem-solving rather than being merely passive receptors of data and information to be regurgitated later. This process must start at the early-childhood level and continue throughout the learning stages, rather than being an add-on at the tail-end of the system.

Yet, none of this absolves UTech, as Dr Campbell-Grizzle appears to imply, from the responsibility of graduating students with the ability to critically apply information absorbed in classrooms to real-world situations. That's the essence of knowledge. It is the ultimate result of thinking.

Achieving this requires more than having third-year students working in UTech's pharmacy, as the School of Pharmacy's head, Sean Moncrieffe, advises in the cases. There must be robust engagement in the lecture halls, the labs and wherever else - especially if the students start with Dr Campbell-Grizzle's identified deficit.