Outreach with a Purpose

Dr. Pilar Muphy is a pharmacist, but spend a day with her and you realize that, to the people of Perry County, Alabama, she is much, much more. Dr. Murphy, an assistant professor of pharmacy in the McWhorter School of Pharmacy at Samford University, found her calling helping piece together a patchwork of health care services for some of the poorest, most underserved people in Alabama.

Dr. Murphy, who earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Oklahoma and her Pharm.D. at the University of Arkansas, found that it was her residency with the McWhorter School of Pharmacy that revealed her calling. “Coming out of pharmacy school, I was looking for a residency opportunity that focused on heart disease and other related illnesses, particularly among African Americans,” Murphy says. “Treating heart disease, helping people understand how to live healthier has always been a passionate interest of mine.” Dr. Murphy found everything she was looking for deep in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt.

In this predominantly African American community, the average household income is roughly half of the national average, and diabetes, hypertension and obesity far outstrip the national average. Dr. Murphy’s answered a calling to show people at greatest risk for diabetes and heart disease that their condition isn’t inevitable and that they do have control over their health. Today, Dr. Murphy is in her second year running the Cardiovascular Risk Reduction Clinic at Sowing Seeds of Hope®, a nonprofit organization based at the Perry County health department. She manages a patchwork of health care initiatives, and every month, students from the McWhorter School of Pharmacy join her as part of the pharmacy school’s required rural clinical rotation. Her students help extend Dr. Murphy’s reach to patients who struggle to access health care of any kind.

“We have no hospitals in Perry County,” Murphy says. “We have few, if any, specialists of any kind. They may see a doctor in Selma and specialist in Birmingham and another specialist somewhere else. At the Cardiovascular Risk Reduction Clinic, we often act as a bridge between the various resources people use. For too long, people down here had nowhere to go, so they ignored important symptoms until it was too late. We’re part of this community to help correct that. We’ll meet with patients before their doctor visits and coordinate their care. It’s not a role that people expect from their pharmacists, but it’s a role we are happy to play.” Perry County, in fact, has a death rate from stroke that is double the national average. Dr. Murphy saw an opportunity, through better information and more contact with patients, to radically reduce that statistic.

“We counsel our patients at the clinic on their disease states, we work to ensure they are not only taking their medicines, but taking them properly. We work with their doctors, often recommending new medicines or advising on changing conditions with the patient,” Murphy says.

Dr. Murphy does more than counsel patients one-on-one. She hosts a weekly radio show, Body Love, sharing health tips and warning signs to look for. She and her students lead support groups for diabetes patients and host screenings at the Perry County Fire Department to reach patients who live outside of the county’s few populated areas. They coordinate programs with churches in the area and even prepare monthly meals for patients to promote healthy eating habits. At these “healthy dinners,” her students lead discussions on various topics to help patients lead healthier lives. “With these dinners,” Dr. Murphy says, “We put everything we know and believe into action. We include devotionals with much of what we do, because we believe that it’s important that people be healthy in body and in spirit.”

The results from Dr. Murphy’s diverse initiatives are compelling. Fatal strokes in the U.S. fell by 15.7% between 1991 and 2006. In Alabama, the decrease was a more modest 6.7%, but in Perry County, fatal strokes fell 19.5% and more than 20% among African Americans. “We’re on the right track,” Murphy says. “Pre-emptive care and continuous monitoring make a difference.”

Samford is Investing in Its Roots

Samford University began as Howard College here in Marion, Alabama. Dr. Murphy sees her clinic and the thousands of student clinical hours spent here as the University’s investment in its roots. “This program, this clinic is important for many reasons,” Dr. Murphy says. “It’s part of our mission to give back, to live our Christian beliefs. But also the University began here, and it is important that we remember that. Yes, the school moved to Birmingham long ago, but we haven’t forgotten the people of Perry County. We can use our skills and our knowledge to make their lives better.”

The Role of the Pharmacist is Changing

The most pronounced move in health care today is the shift to interdisciplinary teams of professionals working together to create better patient outcomes. This dynamic approach has caused significant changes within a number of the professions, and none more so than pharmacy. Gone are the days when a pharmacists sat quietly behind the counter and dispensed pills, far removed from their patients’ lives.

“Seeing the reaction of my students when they come through our clinic is inspiring,” Dr. Murphy says. “I get notes from them all the time telling me they never knew pharmacy could be like this. Proactive. Involved. We’re like family here. I go to church with many of my patients. I see them at the store. I pass them on the streets. I see the direct result of our work here in making their lives better. I could have gone to work most anywhere, but here I found a calling.”