photo of robinsonJennifer Robinson is passionate about her students. As an assistant dean for recruitment and student success at the WSU College of Pharmacy, part of her job is to ensure that as WSU pharmacists go out into the professional world and seek residencies to further specialize and build their skills, those opportunities are ready for them.

A post-graduate pharmacy residency is much like a medical residency. Freshly minted Doctors of Pharmacy apply to and complete residency programs to gain deeper expertise, knowledge and patient care experience in one of many specialty areas, such as oncology pharmacy, pediatrics or infectious diseases.

Robinson is currently working with a colleague from the Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMU) in order to address a potential hurdle for pharmacy graduates looking to apply for residency programs.

In the fall of 2013, the WSU College of Pharmacy made the shift to a competency-based grading model, in which students receive a designation of honors, satisfactory or fail (HSF), instead of the traditional letter grade (GPA). The College of Pharmacy has experienced resounding success with this grading model in the three years since the transition. Retention rates have increased, along with student satisfaction and achievement. In some cases, student stress has even been reduced. However, a challenge the new grading system may now face will be after graduation when Cougar pharmacists apply to post-graduate residency programs.

The problem with GPA as a benchmark

The majority of pharmacy residency programs rely on traditional application processes to select new residents each year. This legacy system uses traditional application screening methods, and many programs require applicants to provide their GPA on applications. Many programs even use GPA as a first-level screening metric, automatically rejecting any applicant who do not meet a program’s “benchmark” for academic achievement. But what happens if an applicant’s grade was “Honors” as opposed to “4.0”?

According to Robinson, it is time to expand the metrics used to determine residency placement.

“Using only GPA as an initial screening metric effectively excludes any applicant who graduated from a program that does not use a GPA grading model,” she said.

Robinson is advocating that residency programs focus on the skillsets needed to be a successful health care provider, rather than using an increasingly arbitrary number to screen applicants.

“Because of the variations in how programs calculate GPA, it is not a good indicator of knowledge and skills,” she said.

But how do you measure soft skills? Being able to work in teams, empathize, exercise clinical decision making skills, and being culturally sensitive can be tricky things to quantify.

“The key is finding common indicators across all programs that can be used to measure these skillsets,” said Robinson. “Is there a better way to assess these elements? I think so.”

Timothy Ulbrich, associate professor and associate dean for workforce development and practice advancement at the NEOMU College of Pharmacy, is working with Robinson to publish a paper addressing the question of GPA as an appropriate measure of a residency candidate’s knowledge and skills. Their objective is to provide the evidence that it is not.

To best serve WSU pharmacy graduates, the important objective for Robinson is to get the word out. Her goal is to increase the awareness of the college’s switch from GPA based grades to the HSF model.

“I want to even the playing field,” said Robinson. “We need to figure out a way to fairly evaluate all students using similar metrics, regardless if they come from a GPA or non-GPA system.”

Getting the word out

To get this information into the right hands, Robinson started at the American Society of Health-Systems Pharmacists (ASHP) midyear meeting, a conference where residency programs have the opportunity to interact with student pharmacists interested in applying to residencies. She talked to directors of post-graduate residency programs and preceptors, the pharmacists certified to teach and mentor pharmacy residents.

“I spoke to them regarding the ‘no GPA’ dilemma, why we don’t have a GPA, and how they can avoid screening out our graduates as they apply for residencies,” she said.

For the next step, Robinson and Ulbrich will present at the National Pharmacy Preceptors Conference this August in Washington, D.C., an event put on annually by the ASHP. Robinson sought out this conference because it brings together the specific leaders in pharmacy who influence residency programs across the country.

“We’re at the cutting edge of pharmacy education and presenting what we’re doing to these academic influencers will allow for them to go back and make adjustments in their residency programs so they are ready to evaluate student pharmacists who come from programs like ours,” she said.

“We have sections of our presentation where we ask for feedback from the audience. I’m really excited to hear what they will say,” said Robinson. “We will be essentially running a small focus group on how to message ‘No GPA’ going forward.”

The WSU College of Pharmacy has a longstanding legacy of developing outstanding health care professionals. Robinson’s collaborative effort to increase access to health education and innovations in curricular delivery and assessment at the WSU College of Pharmacy supports the university’s land-grant mission to address some of society’s most complex issues, specifically WSU’s efforts surrounding advancing Opportunity and Equity, and Improving Education.

[Lori J. Maricle] 08/01/2016