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College of Pharmacy Offers AHA Advanced Cardiac Life Support Certification to Students to Improve Patient Outcomes

UT Health Science Center pharmacy students and instructors participated in the ACLS training in January.

The College of Pharmacy at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center provides a unique opportunity to student pharmacists by offering the American Heart Association (AHA) Advance Cardiac Life Support Certification (ACLS) training. This training is aimed at improving the outcomes of patients who suffer sudden cardiac arrest, particularly in hospital settings. The program enables pharmacists and other health care professionals to respond to such emergencies effectively and quickly.

“ACLS training is an important yet often overlooked component of pharmacy education. Pharmacists have been participating in code teams in the hospital setting for decades, and literature supports that having a pharmacist present can reduce medication errors and mortality,” said Kelly Rogers, professor of Clinical Pharmacy and Translational Science in the College of Pharmacy and director of the ACLS course. “There are very few, if any, schools in the country that offer an ACLS class with AHA provider certification, and this gives students, especially those interested in applying for postgraduate training, a unique edge to stand apart from other applicants.”

In the United States, sudden cardiac arrest results in approximately 335,000 adult deaths annually, with 900 Americans dying each day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for most racial and ethnic groups, men, and women in the country, which can increase a person’s chance of experiencing a sudden cardiac arrest. A focus on heart health is especially important during American Heart Awareness Month, which is recognized every February and encourages individuals to prioritize their cardiovascular health.

The college offers a lecture on ACLS to all pharmacy students in their second year and an elective in their third year. The elective, available every January, allows students the opportunity to obtain the AHA ACLS provider training through a month-long program. Students who take the elective participate in an expanded form of the AHA ACLS provider course, culminating in a mega code simulation and skills check-off at the end of the month. A mega code is a training exercise that simulates a cardiac arrest situation. In this exercise, students act as members of a code team to apply the knowledge and skills they have learned. Each student has the opportunity to be the “code team leader,“ and both individual and group performance are evaluated. After successfully completing this mega code, students become certified as AHA ACLS Providers. This is an exceptional opportunity for students interested in postgraduate training, as well as those who may work in a hospital/institutional setting, where code teams respond to cardiac/respiratory arrests.

The expanded course at the college includes many topics that typically are not covered in as much depth during the AHA course but are essential to providing high-quality cardiac care as a pharmacist. These topics include a more in-depth presentation of pharmacology and algorithms, electrocardiogram (ECG) rhythm recognition, a history of sudden cardiac arrest and the pharmacist’s role, cardiac arrest in special situations, airway management, ethics and coping with death, and effective team leader skills and behaviors. Since its inception in 2009, 314 students have completed the course.

“My goal after graduation is to pursue a career in clinical pharmacy, and the ACLS elective gave me a head start on mastering the treatments for several different arrhythmias and cardiac arrests,” said Madeline Armstrong, a fourth-year pharmacy student who completed the elective in January 2023. “Because I was able to learn this early in my career, I’ve been allowed to assist in codes as a student, which has been such a meaningful experience and an incredible learning opportunity.“

Students taking the course also benefit from a better understanding of ECGs, which record the electrical signal from the heart to check for various heart conditions. They also learn to recognize the early signs and symptoms of stroke and acute coronary syndromes, which could lead to cardiac arrest. This is particularly helpful for health care professionals working in community settings, where patients can use smart devices, such as an Apple Watch, to detect common arrhythmias or irregular heartbeat. As various medication-induced ECG changes can lead to adverse patient events, it is helpful for all pharmacists to have a basic understanding of ECGs and know how to triage a patient who may be experiencing a life-threatening event.

The UT Health Science Center College of Pharmacy is ranked among the top 20 nationally and No. 6 in the country for the number of students matched for a residency. The college has locations in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis. It is ranked No. 6 in National Institutes of Health funding and has conducted extensive research in the oncology realm to discover novel small molecule therapeutics for various cancers. Other research areas include the development of new drugs and delivery systems to treat bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, examination of vascular physiology, modulation of hormonal systems, obesity, acute kidney injury, metabolic syndrome, and conditions such as epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, neuroinflammation, retinal diseases, and substance abuse. More information can be found at uthsc.edu/pharmacy.