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5 posts from August 2011

08/16/2011

Infographic: Teens' Interest in Healthcare & Science Careers

Infographic 

Here is a new USciences' infographic that provides a snapshot of our recent survey; the second annual one which Harris Interactive fielded on our behalf. 

We saw a drop off of interest in healthcare and science careers -– which ties back to interest in healthcare and science degrees that could lead teens into those careers. 

USciences will continue to survey, monitor and report on this, even as we work hard to educate students and their influencers about the strong and positive outcomes for these fields and about less well-known and understood programs like Occupational Therapy and Physics.  Look for new videos coming out later this year.

08/11/2011

Setting right tone at course beginning

Faculty have preferred ways to conduct their classes and have individual policies.  However, these practices and policies differ from one instructor to another and students do not know your policies unless you explicitly inform them.  On the first day of class and on the course page in your learning management system ( i.e., BlackBoard), you might address the following issues, among others:

1.  Do you prefer to finish your presentation of new material before students ask questions or can students interrupt with questions any time?

2. What kinds of student collaboration are encouraged, acceptable and what is not allowed.  We often give mixed messages that students can interpret differently.  For example, if they can collaborate on project work, such as labs, you need to tell them if they can also collaborate on the written reports coming form the projects, such as lab reports.

3.  What is your policy about how material is to be handed in- must be on paper, in your drop box in the learning management system or emailed to you through the university email?

4.  Do you allow students to come late to class or prefer that they skip the class?      

5.  What reference citation style will you accept for their writing?

6. How should they contact you if they need to see you outside of office hours?

7. What is acceptable in terms of how formally or informally students send you electronic messages and in what medium would you prefer to receive them?

There are many others.  As you think of the answers to these questions, you might start developing an information sheet that you can attach to all course shells on your course page in your learning management system.  You can add more ideas to this list over time.

When students know these policies and practices, they are more likely to get off to a good start in your course and not violate rules unintentionally.

 

08/04/2011

The Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, DC

Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, DC.  It is tucked into a shady grove near the National Mall and just in front of the National Academy of Sciences building.  My description of the memorial has recently been posted on the travel guide of the British Society for History of Science:

The Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, DC

 

Express Scripts and Medco: A Fallen Giant OR a Bigger Monster?

By Dr. Daniel A. Hussar who is the Remington Professor of Pharmacy at University of the Sciences' Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. He serves as the author and editor of The Pharmacist Activist newsletter (http://www.pharmacistactivist.com) from which this editorial was taken.

It was only two months ago that my editorial was on the topic of mail-order pharmacy programs (May 2011 issue of The Pharmacist Activist - "Mail-Order Pharmacy Programs - Limitations, Inequities, and Deception"). However, the implications and concerns regarding the recent announcement that Express Scripts plans to buy Medco for $29.1 billion warrant further consideration of this topic.

Some background

The administration of prescription benefit programs has been dominated by three pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) - Medco being the largest and followed in size by CVS Caremark and Express Scripts. Although it usually would not be expected that a smaller company would be in a position to acquire the largest company, Medco has recently lost three huge contracts including one with the insurer United Health Group (which now plans to manage its own prescription program) that accounts for approximately 17% of Medco's business. One suggested explanation underlying the planned acquisition is that Medco, rather than risking a further weakening of its position and unable to rule out the possibility of CVS Caremark selling its PBM to Express Scripts, identified to Express Scripts that it was receptive to being purchased. The proposed name for the combined company is Express Scripts Holdings Company and the current chairman and chief executive of Express Scripts will retain both his titles.

The potential for the new company to control the PBM marketplace in an anticompetitive manner has raised antitrust concerns and expectations of some that the acquisition will not be approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Others anticipate that the FTC will provide approval based on the reasoning that CVS Caremark, United Health, and smaller PBMs can provide sufficient competition in the marketplace.

Cost savings?

The executives of Express Scripts and Medco are promoting approval of the acquisition based, in large part, on their contention that the combined company will have sufficient influence to reduce the cost of prescription medications. Needless to say, a claim that a company can reduce the cost of any component of health care immediately attracts interest from government agencies, employers, unions, and others. However, before such a claim can be considered credible, important questions must be evaluated.

For a number of years the PBMs have operated in an essentially unregulated manner through which they have attained substantial influence, revenues, and growth. The first question that must be asked is: What has happened to the cost of prescription medications during this period of time in which the PBMs have had such a strong influence? The answer is that the cost of prescription drugs has markedly increased. Although some will quickly blame these increases on the pharmaceutical companies, why were the PBMs not able to reduce, or at least control, the costs of prescription medications in the recent past when they suggest they will be able to do so in the future if they are permitted to become bigger?

How will a combined Express Scripts and Medco be able to reduce the cost of prescription medications? The answer is that they will use their greater size and influence to obtain greater rebates from pharmaceutical companies and negotiate lower fees with chain pharmacies. And the independent pharmacies for which the PBMs dictate "take it or leave it" terms will be at an even greater disadvantage than they are now. The challenges that exist even now for independent pharmacies as a consequence of the PBMs' anticompetitive programs and policies should be reason just by itself for the FTC to reject the plan of Express Scripts to acquire Medco.

As unlikely as a reduction in overall costs of prescription medications would seem to be, some anticipated and unprecedented changes in the marketplace suggest that such a change could occur during the next several years. This is because there will be a large number of widely-prescribed and expensive medications (e.g., Lipitor, Plavix, Zyprexa, Lexapro, Seroquel) for which patent protection will expire and much less expensive generic formulations will become available. However, these opportunities for reduced costs of important medications will result regardless of whether Express Scripts and Medco exist as two companies or one company. Indeed, it will be very interesting to observe whether the PBMs pass on the savings to clients when they experience sharply reduced costs for these generic products.

If a reduction in the cost of prescription medications is attained as Express Scripts and Medco propose, who will be the beneficiaries of the savings? Most certainly these PBMs will retain as much of the savings as they can, and perhaps pass some of it on to their clients. If patients/consumers/the public experience any reduction in the cost of their prescription medications, it will be a very small fraction of the amount saved.

As I was writing this editorial, I received a communication from John Buck, the Editor-in-Chief of NEWS-Line Publishing, the organization that publishes The Pharmacist Activist. He is preparing a commentary regarding the proposed acquisition for another NEWS-Line publication, and shared the following observation:

"In searching for news and opinions about the merger, I found more articles on how to profit from it or on Wall Street's reaction to it, than its effect on the consumer, healthcare, or community pharmacies. That is just sad."

His comments are absolutely on target! The quality and scope of the services provided patients by pharmacists, as well as the timely availability and affordability of medications for patients, should receive the highest priority. However, these issues are rarely mentioned in the media coverage. Lest I also be considered guilty of an excessive focus on the economic issues, please also read my May 2011 editorial.

Some responses

As noted earlier, one of the ways in which the combined Express Scripts and Medco would expect to reduce the costs of medications is to reduce the compensation to participating community pharmacies. Therefore, not surprisingly, the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) were among the first to respond to the announcement of the planned acquisition with a statement that reads, in part:

"Today's announcement that Express Scripts will buy Medco creates a middle man that is too big to play fair, and will have immense power to unfairly dominate the market. This combination will monopolize control of the supply line for brand and generic prescription drugs, threaten access to pharmacy patient care, and is a bad deal for America for healthcare plans, for pharmacies, and - most notably - for patients."

I fully concur with this statement. The characterization of "too big to play fair" also invites the observation that these two companies, as well as CVS Caremark, have been viewed by many as being unfair and worse even as separate entities. This is reflected, in part, by their payment of hundreds of millions of dollars to settle claims of fraud and deceptive practices so that these companies can avoid acknowledging any wrongdoing and escape further prosecution. The anticipated consequence of permitting these companies to become bigger and wield more influence would be a further abuse of their power.

It is appropriate that NACDS has taken a strong position against the proposed acquisition. Even though individual chains can negotiate program terms and compensation with the PBMs, most are in a weak bargaining position when dealing with a huge PBM. It is noteworthy that the immediate past chairman of the Board of Directors of NACDS is the president and CEO of CVS Caremark, the strongest competitor of Express Scripts and Medco. The vice chairman of the NACDS Board is the president and CEO of Walgreens. Walgreens recently announced that it would not accept the terms of a new contract (with estimated revenue of more than $5 billion) offered by Express Scripts to participate in its prescription programs. In the face of the implications of the proposed acquisition of Medco, it will be very interesting to observe whether Walgreens stands its ground against Express Scripts or whether it reaches an agreement as it did last year when it threatened to discontinue participation in programs administered by CVS Caremark.

There has been very little comment regarding the proposed acquisition from the pharmaceutical companies that the combined and more powerful PBM will expect to provide greater rebates for their medications. It is ironic that the same pharmaceutical companies that initially caused the chaos regarding the pricing of pharmaceuticals may now be victims of the giant PBMs to whose growth the companies' pricing policies significantly contributed.

No opportunity to respond

There is another important group who either do not have a forum in which they can respond or there is not enough interest on the part of their company, the media or others in whether they have a response. This group includes the Medco pharmacists and other employees. When a deal valued at $29 billion is planned and implemented, company stock holders are expected to benefit and the highest level executives are provided substantial additional compensation and/or other benefits. Little or no attention is given to the welfare of the employees whose dedication and efforts have significantly contributed to the growth of a company to the point that it motivates another company to acquire it.

As strongly as I feel that the type and scope of pharmacy practice that I advocate can not be provided through a mail-order pharmacy program, I have a genuine concern for the Medco pharmacists and other employees whose lives will be affected by a decision that they probably did not know was even being considered. They have been sold out by their executives. Uncertainties regarding closing of facilities and loss of jobs or need for relocation are challenging at any time but particularly during the current economic climate that includes a tightened employment market for pharmacists.

Actions

Although the proposed acquisition of Medco by Express Scripts would have the largest impact on pharmacy practice and patient care in the community setting, it has important implications for the entire profession of pharmacy. Accordingly, the associations of pharmacy practitioners should object to the acquisition in a unified and strong voice to the FTC and our legislators. However, this should be viewed as a short-term intervention to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse.

The prescription benefit programs that are currently available have serious flaws, are a disservice to patients with respect to their limitations in quality and scope, and are inequitable for pharmacists. The profession of pharmacy must design better prescription benefit plans that give the highest priority to the provision of optimal drug therapy for patients by pharmacists who meet with and participate in the direct care of patients.

I am convinced that better programs can be developed that will also be cost-effective. The flawed programs administered by PBM "middlemen" are extracting billions of dollars from the health care system without participation in direct patient care and contributing nothing to the overall quality of pharmacy services. These resources must be redirected to programs that will attain positive outcomes.

The profession of pharmacy can not expect that the government, insurance companies, or PBMs will develop prescription benefit programs that will fully utilize the expertise and scope of services of pharmacists for the benefit of patients. As a profession, we must accept the responsibility for the development of a model prescription benefit program and secure the resources to evaluate it on a pilot basis. I am optimistic that a model program can be so successful and cost-effective that the wisdom of using it for much larger programs will be quickly recognized and embraced.

08/02/2011

Is Time Travel Possible?

My response to a recent news story about physics and time travel:

Is Time Travel Possible?

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