Building independent-thinking pharmacy professionals at Monash

7 November 2012

In this online age information is literally at our fingertips. Anybody with access to the internet can seemingly now get information on anything known to humanity, including information about health, healthcare, medical science and medicines.

But easily accessible information is no guarantee of its veracity. The internet is merely a medium or an information highway: How do we know information is true, accurate, reliable, up-to-date? What do we know about the originator of the information, or the integrity of the information provider?

Misinformation about health, healthcare and products has the potential not only to mislead, but to do great harm. Healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, have an ethical obligation to speak truth to the patients they serve, and must therefore arm themselves with the knowledge and skills to discern truth from error.

"There is a lot of information out there which may not be 100 per cent reliable, perhaps because it is outdated, or  incomplete and unbalanced, because the provider of the information has vested interests, or a hidden agenda,” said Professor Kenneth Lee, Head of Pharmacy at Monash University Sunway Campus.

Professor Lee said pharmacists, now more than ever, are required to be able to find, interpret and assess information critically and independently. Pharmacists must be able to direct their clients to the right information, be it from the internet or any other source, including pharmacists themselves. Phamacists must be able to interpret information in the context of the client’s health-related needs, and to appropriately apply that information to solve clients’ health-related problems. 

Such was the key requirement to be a modern professional, he said, adding that being able to merely spout information learnt from a classroom or a book was simply not good enough, and sometimes missing the point altogether. This was due to the fact that the information learnt in the four years or so in Pharmacy School would always be limited compared to the trove of information that a student will encounter outside.

“A professional pharmacist needs to know what is wrong, what is right, what is reliable. How do they do that? The only way is to have an independent mind, somebody who has a research background who knows how to generate unbiased knowledge,” said Lee.

“To have that critical and independent thinking, it’s crucial for pharmacy students to have more training in research because by engaging in research activities they will come to know how evidence-based knowledge is generated.

“If you don’t go through research you will tend to rely on information from a third party without giving it much thought,” he said.

However, traditionally, about 90 to 95 per cent of the syllabuses for most Pharmacy courses have very little flexibility, inadvertently creating a culture among students to merely accept what is given or taught.

“The general trend is more towards a ‘spoon-feeding’ mode of knowledge delivery, even in Western countries, but this is more prevalent in Asian countries. Students just tend to sit there, listen and copy as quickly as they can without even digesting the material. They are not given the time to think, nor are they challenged to think for themselves,” said Prof Lee.

He said students who graduate with this form of learning end up losing out in the areas of critical and independent thinking, which was crucial in the field of pharmacy.

“For example, if you read something and you don’t challenge it, and think it through independently, and just absorb it, then by the modern concept, you’re not a professional, you’re a technician.”

Prof Lee said that at Monash University, pharmacy education was becoming more student-centred. Instead of passively taking notes, the student has to take part in teaching-learning events, a more active and interactive process in which students can raise questions or challenge what is presented.

“Our students are required do some reading prior to coming to class, so by the time they get to class, they would have some basic knowledge of the subject and when the lecturer teaches, the student is able to challenge or question things,” he said.

This method of teaching and learning is one of Prof Lee’s passionate visions for Monash University Sunway campus. While the pharmacy unit was only just set up more than three years ago, he believes it is ready to adopt a more student-centred, critical approach to teaching. The University, as well as his faculty of highly-experienced lecturers, share the same vision.

“Monash, because of its traditional research culture, places more emphasis on research compared to other universities. This is something I see that is unique in Malaysia. Credibility in teaching derives mainly from research or from practice – that is patient contact. And pharmacy practice must also be research driven.”

Currently under the Pharmacy program, students are exposed to elements of research in the form of an elective where they can choose to do research over a period of 12 weeks. Towards the end of this period, students are to come up with a research report.

“By choosing this research track, students can pick up basic skills of doing research and train themselves to think independently, rather than just relying on an external source of information,” said Lee.

“Ultimately, I strongly believe that this is the only way to train students how to think independently with the objective of best serving their patients or clients in the future.”