Hidden Treasure for Health Professionals
Imagine youre a health and physical education teacher at a high school in western
Montana. One day you overhear a clutch of student athletes talking about taking something
youve never heard of to improve their performance in sports. Youre worried.
What is the stuff? Is it harmful? Who would know the answer?
Or imagine youre a physician, an internist with a large and varied practice in
the Missoula area. Keeping up on new and better drugs to treat the illnesses you see has
become almost impossible because of the pace at which theyre developed and come on
the market. You have no one on your staff with the time to research new drugs for you. Who
The University of Montana. In fact, for either situation and thousands of others, UM
has a service that can answer your questions and those of educators and health
professionals near and far: its little-publicized Drug Information Service.
At the helm is Cathy Bartels, an associate professor of pharmacy practice and full-time
DIS director since 1995. Amy Gruel, a 1998 UM graduate in pharmacy, works with Bartels as
a drug information specialist.
Their job, Bartels says, is to provide accurate, complete, up-to-date, unbiased
information about prescription and nonprescription medications and dietary
supplements to health professionals in Montana and elsewhere in the country. Their clients
include doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, school administrators and
Can Bartels and Gruel answer queries off the top of their heads? No, Bartels says. They
are not walking encyclopedias. They are researchers.
We search various computer databases, Medline, journals, the Web, books and
pharmaceutical manufacturers to find the information needed to answer the questions,
What kind of questions? Heres a sampling.
If a patient has an allergy to sulfa drugs, is it safe for him to be given generic
propofol, which contains sulfites? Or should he receive only the brand-name product, which
does not contain sulfites?
What treatment options are there for a woman suffering from menopausal hot flashes who
has a history of breast cancer?
Why are over-the-counter products containing phenyl propanolamine being pulled off the
Is there an interaction between amiodarone and grapefruit juice? If so, how should it be
What information in the clinical literature discusses the use of mycophenylate mofetil
(CellCept) in the treat- ment of myasthenia gravis?
Once they find the answer, they phone, write, fax or e-mail the information to
the requestor, Bartels says. Its usually technical, which is one reason the
DIS cannot take requests from the general public.
I try to keep our service hidden from the lay public to avoid getting
calls directly from them, she says. This is because we dont have access
to their medical records and might not know the whole story before trying to answer their
questions. Plus, we dont want to risk the chance of being misinterpreted by someone
without the technical expertise needed to understand our responses.
Surprising as it may seem in retrospect, the idea of starting a drug information
service was not a winner. Several proposals submitted for outside money were rejected,
says Professor Gayle Cochran, chair of the pharmacy practice department and a member of
the first grant-writing team in 1977.
Finally, she says, it became obvious that if the School of Pharmacy was ever
going to have such a service, it would have to be funded from within the school.
During the 1980s the school limped along with nothing more than a pharmacy reference
room to serve faculty members and students. And as a low priority in a facility cramped
for space, it was displaced several times. Not until fall semester 1991 was the pharmacy
school able to announce a bona fide Drug Information Service, created to serve not only
pharmacy students and faculty but also professionals in the fields of health care and
health education. Its director was John Peterson, a part-time pharmacy practice faculty
Reference materials and journals were scrounged here and there from pharmacy
school accumulations, the Mansfield Library and pharmacy faculty members. Students, heavy
users of the resources, pitched in their time as monitors to keep the service open for use
in the evenings and on weekends. During fall semester 1992, the first semester in which
records were kept, the service received 33 calls from outside.
By the time Bartels took over as director in 1995, outside calls for help averaged 31
per month, she says. Today that number has tripled to an average 98 per month.
Providing information is but one part of the DIS, however. From the outset, its
proponents envisioned an equally important function, and Peterson put it in gear in 1994.
That spring semester he offered a four-week clerkship experience for pharmacy students,
giving them specialized experience in researching drug literature and providing drug
information to others. That program has grown, too more than tenfold.
We now have students year-round and quite often have two students at a
time, Bartels says. Our eventual goal is to provide this experience to all
students in the professional program.
For pharmacy Dean David Forbes, that goal dovetails nicely with the schools role
as part of an institution of higher education.
Were here to provide our pharmacy students with the very best experiences
we can so they can go out and do a good job, he says. One of the problems is,
were not the real world. We provide classroom experiences for our students. The Drug
Information Center receives normal, everyday questions from the states health
professionals, and our students get a chance to participate in that. So we kill two birds
with one stone. We provide the service and give the students the opportunity to learn
while we provide the service.
Im from Wisconsin, Forbes says, where they say the
borders of the university are the borders of the state. Ive always believed
thats true for us as well.
For more information, call the School of Pharmacy and Allied Health Sciences at
(406) 243- 4621.