UH Hilo's College of Pharmacy extends reach to American Samoa

July 9, 2009

There’s only one place in the small, far-flung U.S. territory of American Samoa for its 60,000-plus residents to fill their prescription needs.

Dr. Evelyn Ahhing-Faaiuaso oversees it all as the chief of pharmacy for the Lyndon B. Johnson Tropical Medical Center. She’s one of only two pharmacists on this group of islands 2,600 miles southwest of Hawaiʻi and is the only one licensed in the U.S. That distinction presents tremendous challenges for her.

"There’s such a great need for pharmacists in our setting," said Ahhing-Faaiuaso, who is a native of American Samoa. "There are not enough to serve our population."

That’s where the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo hopes to step in. Three College of Pharmacy faculty members and two third-year pharmacy students recently spent a week in American Samoa to assess the hospital’s pharmacy needs, educate medical staff and encourage island students to pursue a pharmacy career. The delegation returned on July 3.

"My hope is to promote pharmacy to students here so they take up the profession," Ahhing-Faaiuaso said, "and to return back home and serve our community."

Dr. Carolyn Ma, associate professor and chair for pharmacy practice and director of experiential education, first visited the hospital in March to determine how UH Hilo’s burgeoning pharmacy program could help the territory now and in the long term, in line with its mission to improve the quality of health care in Hawaiʻi and throughout the Pacific. The College has begun a pre-pharmacy initiative at American Samoa Community College through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Ma said she was impressed by the hospital’s successes despite its limited resources.

"The health care providers at the hospital do an incredible job with what they have, and I really admire and respect them for their dedication," Ma said.

Ma also is a member of an interdisciplinary health-care team from the June Jones Foundation, whose summer mission overlapped the College of Pharmacy’s work in American Samoa. Jones, the head football coach at Southern Methodist University, worked with athletes at a football camp while his nonprofit medical mission donated $400,000 worth of supplies to the hospital. Members of the pharmacy delegation helped deliver those supplies.

Ma and Drs. Anita Ciarleglio and Scott Holuby, assistant professors in the Department of Pharmacy Practice, also offered continuing education classes for pharmacy staff, physicians and nurses. Topics included diabetes, hypertension and asthma, which are all prevalent in American Samoa, as well as the prevention of medication errors. The faculty attended rounds to offer assistance to providers, patients and families regarding their medications and to learn more about hospital functions.

"There’s such a huge potential for pharmacy services, but they truly need more pharmacists who are familiar with the culture and sensitive to the needs of the Samoan people," Holuby said.

"We want to promote pharmacy as the beautiful profession that it is," Ciarleglio said. "It’s a fine way to give back to one’s community and serve others."

Ma’s other purpose on this mission was to evaluate a potential partnership between the College and the hospital to place students in fourth-year, advanced pharmacy practice experiential rotations while encouraging island residents to consider a pharmacy career.

"It became apparent from this visit that certainly the LBJ medical center would welcome and benefit from fourth-year students to help build their inpatient pharmacy services, and also that our students could help promote the pharmacy profession at the intermediate, high school and community college levels," Ma said.

College of Pharmacy students Robert Esteban and Daniel Navas were selected for the medical mission and also will receive elective credits for their efforts. Both are third-year students on track to graduate with the College’s inaugural class in 2011.

Esteban and Navas shared their educational journeys with a crowded classroom of community college students and encouraged them to follow a similar path.

"I hope I gave students the impression that they are able to make a difference in their communities, as well as their own lives, through education," said Esteban, a 32-year-old student from Honolulu.

Navas, 36, of Honolulu hopes he has piqued the interest of Samoan students so that one day they will help their islands.

"Understanding the culture is essential in communication and effective patient care," Navas said. "The situations I encountered here are real and complicated, and need real solutions despite limited resources."

The need for pharmacists here is great, Ahhing-Faaiuaso said, especially native-born people who understand the Samoan language and the islands’ traditions. She received a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy in 1987 and a doctorate in pharmacy in 2003. She took over the pharmacy in 2007 after gaining experience in retail pharmacy and at Tripler Army Medical Center on Oʻahu.

Ahhing-Faaiuaso is excited about the potential benefits for her hospital and the College of Pharmacy as the partnership evolves.

"An affiliation with UH Hilo would bring the current standards of pharmacy practice into our setting," Ahhing-Faaiuaso said, "and with the limited resources we have, we can meet them halfway with ongoing teaching for the students who will be spending time here."

The College of Pharmacy was awarded candidate accreditation status by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education in July 2008. The College will be eligible for full accreditation when its first class of students graduates from the four-year program in 2011. It will welcome its third class of 90 students in August.

For more information about the College of Pharmacy, call (808) 933-2909 or email pharmacy@hawaii.edu.

See more news from 2009.