For years, faculty and students from the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy have made hospital rounds with doctors and doctors-in-training from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, bringing two kinds of expertise to bear on patient care.
“We were doing interdisciplinary education before that word came to be used,” says Joseph A. Barone, acting dean of the pharmacy school. “We used to call it ‘seeing patients together.’”
Now that the pharmacy and medical schools belong to a single institution, those informal arrangements are bearing fruit in a new program that will allow students to graduate with degrees in both pharmacy and medicine: the Pharm.D./M.D. An anonymous $100,000 donation to the pharmacy school is launching a scholarship endowment for the new dual-degree program, which Rutgers administrators believe is the first of its kind in the country.
More fundraising is planned to support scholarships for the Pharm.D./M.D. students, who will be shouldering the burden of eight years of professional-school costs. Nationally, medical students graduate with an average of nearly $170,000 in debt, says Robert Wood Johnson Medical School dean Peter Amenta.
“The individual who is supporting this really believes that pharmacists and physicians need to talk more about the care of their patients,” Barone says. Those conversations ensure that patients get the right medications in the right dosages and aren’t accidentally exposed to dangerous drug interactions, he says.
Last spring, about 15 percent of the medical school’s class graduated with dual degrees through six existing programs that allow future doctors to earn credentials in law, business, public health, and other fields. The pharmacy school also currently offers dual degrees in public health, business, pharmaceutical sciences, and toxicology. With medical knowledge expanding too rapidly for anyone to keep up with the literature in every discipline, interdisciplinary professional training will likely become increasingly common, and increasingly important, the deans say.
“People are going to be working in multidisciplinary teams. That’s going to be the wave of the future,” Amenta says. “To put programs like this in place, for people who can really bridge those relationships, is going to be huge.”
The program will be open only to the highest-achieving pharmacy students, who will apply about halfway through their professional training, in the spring of their second year. The medical school will decide separately whether to admit students nominated by the pharmacy school, and only three students a year are expected to make the cut.
Once admitted to the dual-degree program, the students will spend the third and fourth years of pharmacy school engaged in joint research and educational programs with medical students. They will take the pharmacy licensure exam between graduation from pharmacy school and matriculation at medical school.
Those who complete the lengthy training—four years in pharmacy school, four years in medical school, and additional years of residency in a medical specialty—will become part of a cadre with unique qualifications to lead research trials, steer health insurance companies, provide patient care, and educate the next generation of physicians and pharmacists, the deans say.
Their dual expertise will be especially valuable as drug therapies are increasingly tailored to patients’ specific genetic profiles, in a trend that is sometimes called individualized medicine, Barone says.
“It’s not that we’re going to be creating better pharmacists or better physicians,” Barone says. “We’re going to be creating these practitioners who are going to be able to provide leadership on the teaching piece, on the research piece, and on the health care policy piece, because they’re going to have both skills.”
Ultimately, that’s bound to benefit patients, the deans say. “It’s all about communication and working together,” Amenta says. “You can’t beat great teamwork.”
Originally published in Rutgers alumni magazine. Photography by Douglas Benedict.