Bayli Larson on 9Line desk

As soon as Bayli Larson hung up the phone, it rang again. She closed her eyes. It rang again. On the third ring, Larson took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and picked up the receiver.

Larson, a fourth-year graduate student in the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, wasn’t facing a harassing caller. A firm believer in the benefits of volunteering, Larson was staffing the phones for Pharmacist Line9.

Although the 90-minute phone marathon can offer a crash course in stress control and mental cleansing, it provides CU, volunteers and Channel 9 viewers so much more, participants say.

“It gave me a sense of the needs of the community members, and it helped me learn how to think on the spot,” Larson said. “As a pharmacist, it’s really important to be able to communicate effectively and respond accurately in a way that the patients understand. It was great practice.”

Fulfilling a growing need

Because of the popularity of the service (no volunteer’s phone ever sits quiet) coupled with serious medical matters taxing the community, Channel 9 recently boosted the airings, making Pharmacist Line9 a monthly event, said Lynne Valencia, Channel 9 vice president of community relations.

Many of the questions I answered I felt really made a difference in their lives, whether it was preventing drugs from falling into the wrong hands or averting a serious health event. — Briana Williams

From an opioid-addiction crisis gripping the state to a severe flu season lingering on, critical issues have heightened the need for the partnership, said Valencia, an alumna of CU Denver. “CU students and faculty members supply the expertise that people are looking for, and we provide the platform. They offer our viewers sound advice and a great service.”

Volunteering ranks high on the priority list of CU’s pharmacy school, recently named the recipient of the 2017 Lawrence C. Weaver Transformative Community Service Award from the American Association of College of Pharmacy (AACP). While fulfilling unmet needs in the community, volunteer events move CU students’ education beyond the textbook.

“It really can help supplement what you are learning in class,” said third-year graduate student Briana Williams, an active volunteer, including with Line9, and an intern at University of Colorado Hospital. “You definitely get questions right off the bat that you are like: I have no idea how to answer this. But you have to think on your feet and use the resources that you are taught in pharmacy school.”

Briana Williams on 9Line desk
Briana Williams, left, takes a rare break to smile for the camera. Her colleagues, from left to right: Liza Wilson Claus, Emily Zadvorny and Peter Rice.

Facing tough questions

Armed with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and other medical and prescription directives, Williams and Larson quickly fell into the groove of the call-ins, which generally include two students and two faculty members. Apprehensive her first time, when she was a second-year student, Larson said she remembered a lesson from school: It’s OK to say I don’t know.

Calls can run the gamut from the simple — Where can I get a flu shot? — to the moderate — How do I dispose of addictive medications? — to the complicated — What will I do if I can’t refill my pain-pill prescription?

With new regulations threatening opioid access, many calls relate to the crisis, including from fearful patients who rely on the drugs, Larson said. “I found those questions kind of challenging. A lot of these people have been living with chronic pain for years, and it’s the only thing that can get them out of bed in the morning.”

The anonymity factor can embolden callers to ask more complicated and sensitive questions, Williams said.  “Without having to actually go to a physician or pharmacist and see them face to face, they can ask these questions without thinking in the back of their minds that somebody is judging them,” she said.

Volunteers can confer with their colleagues on the Line9 desk, or, when a question falls outside of their expertise, refer the callers to their physicians, Williams said. “You have to know your boundaries and your scope of practice.”

Educating the public

Regardless of whether they can answer the question, the volunteers educate patients and urge them to use their physicians and pharmacists as resources. “I don’t know a pharmacist who wouldn’t provide any patient a phone consultation, but a lot of people don’t know that,” Larson said.

I think it really gets out to the public that pharmacists are not just pill-pushers; that we really have a lot of education that we go through to provide more services. And we are typically one of the more accessible health care professionals. — Briana Williams

Williams, who said she chose the CU Anschutz Medical Campus for graduate school partly because of the state’s progressiveness in the pharmaceutical field and the school’s emphasis on multidisciplinary teamwork, said taking part in events like Line9 also helps educate people about her profession.

“I think it really gets out to the public that pharmacists are not just pill-pushers; that we really have a lot of education that we go through to provide more services. And we are typically one of the more accessible health care professionals.”

‘A greater purpose’

A lot of people don’t know where to go for help, Williams said. “Many of the questions I answered I felt really made a difference in their lives, whether it was preventing drugs from falling into the wrong hands or averting a serious health event.”

In today’s competitive world, volunteering can also boost student’s chances at jobs and residency programs, said Williams and Larson, who both work in pharmacies and have their eyes on residencies post-graduation. Larson recently learned that she matched to a PGY1 residency with UCHealth Memorial in Colorado Springs.

Residencies are not required, but they can help set pharmacy students up for careers in hospitals and clinical settings after graduation. This year’s residency numbers for CU Pharmacy are on par with previous years, with 64 percent of those who applied matching, tying the national average.

“I just can’t stress it enough how important work and volunteering is,” Larson said.  It also helps students stay focused on what comes at the end of their heavy college load. “I remember going to work after an exam and being grateful to see there’s a lot to look forward to,” she said. “It’s all for a greater purpose.”