ST. LOUIS — Alicia Keys and Mickey Mouse needed some relief. Luckily, some fledgling pharmacists knew how to make calamine lotion.
The Career Explorers Program sponsored by Walgreens and the St. Louis College of Pharmacy lets high school students work as pharmacists for four weeks each summer to learn the basics of the trade — and fill fake prescriptions for their favorite celebrities.
This week, their assignment involved mixing calamine, zinc oxide, methylcellulose and other ingredients with a mortar and pestle to make the gooey solution used for skin irritations. After mixing the lotion, the students filled plastic orange bottles and printed labels with instructions for their (imaginary) customers.
Bonus points went to students whose bottles had smooth labels and no drops of pink lotion on the outside.
Despite the six-figure average salaries, pharmacists are in demand because of the aging population, a proliferation of 24-hour pharmacies and increases in chronic diseases controlled by medication. Experts predict a national shortage of about 160,000 pharmacists by 2020, according to the nonprofit Pharmacy Manpower Project.
Express Scripts and Barnes-Jewish Hospital launched a similar introduction-to-pharmacy program for high schoolers this summer and recruited 30 students. Nearly 200 local students applied for the Walgreens program this year, and 25 were chosen for their high test scores, average GPAs of 3.75 and outgoing personalities suited for the retail setting.
Students divide their time between classrooms and labs at the college and working as pharmacy technicians in local Walgreens stores. There they talk with customers, fill prescriptions, type labels and work the drive-throughs during six-hour shifts.
“At first I thought it was just putting pills in a bottle, but a lot more goes on behind the scenes,” said Ashley Johnson, 17, a senior at East St. Louis High. “It’s hard work, and it instills in you the desire to help people.”
Ashley said she plans on applying to the pharmacy college after graduating from high school.
“Now I know this is what I want to do,” she said. “When I do start school, I’ll be a step ahead of the game.”
The program primarily targets minority students to spur their interest in pharmacy education and jobs. The Institute of Medicine has called for greater diversity in medical professions because minorities are more likely to work in minority communities and have a greater awareness of their special needs. For example, African-Americans and Latinos have a higher risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.
At least 10 former participants in the high school program are now working as technicians or pharmacists at local Walgreens. Pharmacy technicians work under the guidance of pharmacists to fill prescriptions but typically don’t counsel patients.
“We’ve already seen it pay dividends,” said Tim Stewart, a district pharmacy training coordinator for the company’s St. Louis region.
Students who get the hands-on preview are more likely to stick with pharmacy school and their careers. They already have experienced the bad and the good, Stewart said: irritable, sick customers, and helping people to feel better.
Mellai Haile, one of the program’s first graduates, now works as a pharmacist at a Walgreens in Florissant. “It gave me experience and reinforced that it would be a good career for me,” she said. Haile said she much preferred the summer job in a pharmacy compared with a previous job making sandwiches.
“It’s someone’s health,” she said. “Any mistake you make really matters.”
Students get $1,200 upon finishing the program. The program is in its eighth year, and 175 students have participated. More than half have gone on to pharmacy school.
“We don’t say they have to apply here, but they inevitably do because they like what they see,” said Nimita Thekkepat, an assistant professor at St. Louis College of Pharmacy.
DeJuan Rogers, 17, a senior at Miller Career Academy, spent a day last week filling prescriptions for arthritis medications and other drugs and said he is definitely interested in a medical career.
“I feel that I should be different and make something out of my life.”