Ten students from the University of Kansas' School of Pharmacy are spending part of their winter break touring independent pharmacies in southwest Kansas.
The tour, which is based out of Dodge City, includes pharmacies in Wichita, Greensburg, Kinsley, Ness City, Scott City, Garden City, Cimmaron, Dodge City, Meade, Medicine Lodge, Anthony and Kingman.
The purpose of the trip is to introduce the students to owners of independent pharmacies in rural Kansas as they begin to think about lives after pharmacy school.
In Dodge City, the students visited Gibson Pharmacy. They visited with Matt Morrison, who co-owns the business with his father, Mike. Matt graduated from the KU School of Pharmacy in 2009 and his wife, Krista, graduated in 2010.
"We emphasized to the students that the patient comes first and then everything falls in place after that — at least that what's worked for our business. We also told them to remember that there are advantages to having a local pharmacy and that there are services we can provide that aren't available elsewhere," Morrison said.
The students had questions about how business is going and what the challenges are, particularly dealing with third-party insurance issues.
In Cimmaron, the students met with Jim Coast, owner of Clark Pharmacy since 1975.
Coast and his son, Mike, both attended the KU School of Pharmacy and were happy to visit with the students and pass on what wisdom they've gained.
The Coasts purchased the Medical Center Pharmacy in Dodge City in 1991, established the Minneola Pharmacy in 2006 and created Coast Health Services in 2008. The health services business provides long-term care facility service as well as consulting services.
"It's tough to grow a pharmacy in a small town," Coast said while waiting for the students to arrive.
"We're busier than we used to be because of population growth and the boomers beginning to use more medications, but we also have more technical things to deal with," he said.
People in rural areas tend to use the local pharmacy as the front line of medical care. They'll consult the pharmacist they've trusted for years before going to the doctor.
"I once had someone bring in a jar of urine," Coast told the students.
"They wanted me to tell them what to do. In that case, I told them they should see their doctor."
The down side of customer trust is pharmacies are often expected to deal with the insurance companies on behalf of their customers.
"I've seen estimates that we spend up to 30 percent of our time dealing with claims and other insurance questions," Coast said.
The KU students will get a taste of life at all kinds of pharmacies during their training.
They spend a month during the summer following their first year of classes working in three different locations, then they repeat the process during their last year. And they spend time at hospital pharmacies as well.
Page 2 of 2 - Gene Hotchkiss, senior associate dean and one of two KU faculty members on the trip, said "We always tell them that being an independent pharmacist is more than a career, it's a lifestyle."
The trip to southwest Kansas is usually an eye-opener for the students from the Kansas City metro area.
"They're just blown away with what Jim and Mike are doing here, and with independent pharmacies in the area," Hotchkiss said.
There's no shortage of students interested in pursuing a career — or lifestyle — in pharmacy.
The KU School of Pharmacy has 150 openings each year and regularly receives more than 300 applications.
"The job market is tight — all our students get jobs — but not all of them can go to the big cities. They have to look at rural opportunities. They're interested in starting their own businesses but they're wondering what the future holds — how they're going to be able to pay for the store," Hotchkiss said.
Ken Audus, dean of the KU School of Pharmacy and also accompanying the students on the tour, said the future of pharmacy is hard to predict.
"There are 10,000 people turning 65 every day in this country and that will continue for, what, the next 25 years? That's a significant trend," Audus said.
Words of wisdom
Coast took the students through a bullet list of important points.
"The customer still comes first — people don't always have information, so you take care of them the best you can. They'll be loyal," he said.
He also recommended they treat and pay their employees well.
"We've tried to treat everybody as part of our family, and we've had very little turnover. And remember, if your pharmacist leaves, you'll probably have to step in to fill the void," he said.
Coast also suggested that the young generation of students get involved in the pharmacy organizations.
"My generation has not been very good at that but you need to have your voice heard in order to help influence state and national legislation and the organizations need younger pharmacists participating with new ideas."
In response to a question about concerns of running a business, Coast said he once complained to the dean that they hadn't had enough business classes in school.
The dean said "First of all, there's just not enough time and secondly, we hope that you learned how to go out and find the answer if you don't know it."
Coast and both professors noted that running their own business is not the best choice for every student, but for those who choose that path, it makes for a rewarding pursuit."
"Right now, the world thinks that bigger is better, but people will eventually decide the local service you can provide is more valuable," Coast said.