Pharmacy dean working hard on new program

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

SUWANEE -- Mark Okamoto is no stranger to developing a pharmacy program.

Before he became the founding dean and chief academic officer of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine's School of Pharmacy at the Georgia campus in February, Okamoto served as a tenured professor and founding chairman of pharmacy practice at the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy.

Okamoto, who has a bachelor's of science in biology for the University of California, Los Angeles and a doctorate of pharmacy degree from the University of Southern California, wasn't looking to start a pharmacy school when he flew to Suwanee to learn about the job. He said the fact that the campus had an established School of Osteopathic Medicine was a hook that led him to accept the job.

"The benefit of being in a new school is that I get to set up the system the way I would like it to be run," Okamoto said.

Okamoto said he started working in academia after working as a researcher. After receiving his Pharm.D., he completed a one-year residency in general medicine at the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center. He served the next three years in two post-doctoral fellowship programs in pharmacokinetics and pharmacoeconomics of infectious diseases at the same institution.

After he finished his second fellowship, he served as a clinical pharmaceutical scientist at Kaiser Permanente. He later joined PHI Healthcare Inc. as corporate director of clinical affairs overseeing a number of clinical pharmacy programs at more than 20 medical centers.

Okamoto also served as a faculty member at Western University of Health Sciences, where he ultimately became the associate dean for assessment, associate dean for teaching effectiveness and chair of social and administrative sciences.

Starting the new school, slated to open in August, hasn't been easy, Okamoto said. The workload has kept him busy, but as he's hired an administrative team, Okamoto has been able to delegate tasks he previously handled, such as driving to sites to set up rotations and developing the curriculum.

Although there is a nationwide shortage of faculty members for pharmacy schools, Okamoto said the school's location has made it easier for him to attract quality teachers. Georgia's geography is attractive, and Suwanee's proximity to Atlanta is also a plus.

One of the reasons the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine decided to launch a pharmacy school in Georgia is because pharmacists are in demand at the moment, Okamoto said.

There are a couple of reasons for the demand for pharmacists, he said. One, the population is getting older and, therefore, takes more medicine. Two, the scope of the practice is expanding, and in addition to filling prescriptions, pharmacists are expected to counsel patients, screen for adverse drug interactions and know about medication therapy management services.

The School of Pharmacy has passed muster with the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the Georgia Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Students will start classes in August pending approval from the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education.

Meanwhile, the classrooms are under construction at the Suwanee campus, the home of Gwinnett County's only medical school. In addition to classrooms, the School of Pharmacy will also contain three teaching labs, Okamoto said.

The four-year doctoral program will include three years of didactic study and one year of advanced clinical practice. The pharmacy students will learn much of the same material as the medical students, such as anatomy and physiology, but the classes will focus more on therapeutics than diagnostics. The pharmacy students must also learn about medicinal chemistry and the chemistry of drugs.

The school is currently accepting applications, and Okamoto said 75 students will be accepted in the inaugural year. The class size will increase by 15 each year thereafter to a maximum of 150 students.