If the word "pharmacist" conjures an image of someone in a white coat patiently counting pills into little golden vials, your view is becoming outdated.

Robots and trained technicians are taking over some of the traditional roles of the family pharmacist, according to Michael Barton, and it's a change that promises pharmacists a more active role in patient care and education.He believes that pharmacists won't be so involved in physically filling prescriptions in the next few years, but will instead put their energies into helping patients get the right prescription to begin with and making sure they understand their medicines. They'll be dispensing education and information.

Barton and Cindy Nielson are pharmacists at LDS Hospital, working directly with physicians, nurses and patients. They'll be on hand to answer questions about all things pharmaceutical during Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Health Care hotline from 10 a.m. to noon.

It's a role Barton already is filling. He works with critical care medicine, serving as the pharmacist for the hospital's shock-trauma and medical/surgery intensive care units. As such, he follows the medication that patients get and works with physicians to see that the correct dosage is ordered. He doesn't dispense medicine at all, in fact.

He sees the value of the evolving role every time he helps physicians and others, including nurses and patients, learn more about the therapeutic use of drugs.

While it's different in hospitals than in general pharmacies, he said, Barton expects to see role reversals as the pharmacists spend more time counseling customers about their medications while others do the dispensing.

That counseling is important because "all medications have a potential for side effects."

Barton has a "PharmD" degree, meaning he has a doctorate in pharmacy. The degree requires two years of pre-med-like courses, then five years' study in a pharmacy school. People who get a general bachelor's degree in the field can do it two years faster, but the "PharmD" is rapidly becoming the standard for employment, he said. The extra two years allows for specialized training in courses such as advanced therapeutics and epidemiology. And it includes clinical rotations very similar to those a medical student would do: poison control, cardiology, infectious diseases, etc.

LDS Hospital is in the process of going to an automated prescription dispensing system, which frees pharmacists to work closely with physicians and nurses. And they're helping develop protocols that help standardize and streamline care, said Barton.

For example, Nielson works in the Coumadin clinic. Coumadin is a blood-thinner that must be closely monitored to make sure the correct dosage is used. So she examines the results of blood tests to check the dosage.

The thing is, taking medicine is more than popping pills, said Barton. "You have to learn how to properly use an inhaler, for instance."

Pharmacists are a good choice to teach those things, he added.

"It's a great opportunity and I think it's very exciting," said Barton. "That's what got me interested in pharmacy. I see the role of a pharmacist as really being the drug expert. The information overload is daunting for physicians, who are being overwhelmed. We can help.

"It's a matter of finding where we can use that help in the most effective way."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Health hotline Saturday

Two pharmacists, Michael Barton and Cindy Nielson, will be featured during Saturday's Deseret News/Intermountain Health Care health hotline. They will take calls and answer questions from 10 a.m. to noon. The toll-free number from anywhere in the Intermountain Region is 1-800-925-8177. All calls are confidential.