Viewpoint: Reflections on pharmacy school after 30 years

November 19, 2007

Pharmacy schools' emphasis on chemistry is unjustified, according to this community pharmacist.

My most prominent memory of pre-pharmacy and pharmacy school is the heavy emphasis on chemistry. Who can forget all those courses in inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, medicinal chemistry, and biochemistry? To this day, I can't understand why my formal education placed such a heavy emphasis on chemistry. There is very little that I need to know about chemistry to function as a competent retail pharmacist.

There was a general perception among pre-pharmacy and premed students that the chemistry and physics classes were "hurdle" classes used by admissions committees to weed out applicants. If a student did well in those classes, it was assumed that he or she could do well in pharmacy school or medical school. Like the heavy emphasis on chemistry that was required to become a pharmacist, I have never understood the physics requirement. Even back in the 1970s, it should have been perfectly clear that physics had very little to do with pharmacy.

In pharmacy school, I had no idea that memorizing things like the structural formula of drugs would turn out to be of no use in my career. Knowledge of structural formulas would have been beneficial if I had become a medicinal chemist. During my entire career as a chain pharmacist, there has never been a single instance in which I needed to know the structural formula of a drug.

If you were to rank all of your required college courses in terms of relevance to your career, where would you place chemistry on that list? When is the last time that a drug's structural formula had any bearing on any decision you had to make or on any prescription you filled? When is the last time a doctor or customer asked you a question that required you to look at the structural formula of a drug?

I am not saying that we should not have a single course in chemistry. Complete ignorance of medicinal chemistry would not be wise. For example, pharmacists would not be able to have an informed opinion about the differences among "me-too" drugs without some understanding of the similarity in their structural formula. Pharmacists know that the difference in some drugs is simply a minor molecular modification that is sufficient to qualify for a separate patent.

Retail pharmacists draw upon their knowledge of pharmacology infinitely more often than their knowledge of chemistry. Counseling requires knowledge of pharmacology and drug therapies, not chemistry. Yet my college years consisted of more classes in chemistry than pharmacology. What sense does it make to have so much chemistry in college if it's not used after graduation? Of course, chemistry is important for understanding things like IV incompatibilities, but I had far more chemistry than is needed to understand IV incompatibilities. As a chain pharmacist, I've never prepared an IV.