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Northeastern University Professor to Train Pharmacists to Become Better Communicators

Patient counseling and communication skills taught in the classroom often lack reinforcement by the pharmacists during the experiential rotations of pharmacy students. Northeastern University pharmacy professor Nathaniel Rickles wants to change that by training community pharmacists (preceptors) to provide better feedback to students about their communication skills.

Helping to get his year-long project underway, Rickles has received the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education’s (AFPE) new investigator grant given to young pharmacy college faculty researchers to support their pharmaceutical science studies and research. The competitive award was granted to Rickles for his research titled “The Impact of Training Preceptors in Assessing and Evaluating Student Communication Skills on Student’s Counseling Skills and Attitudes.”

“Communication and counseling skills are inevitable assets everyone who works with patients should possess, thus we infuse communication consistently throughout the curriculum,” said Rickles, Assistant Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Northeastern’s Bouve College of Health Sciences. “These skills, however, must be reinforced during the experiential part of education, and community pharmacists may not be equipped to adequately do so.”

Rickles says possible reasons for the inadequate preceptor reinforcement are the lack of awareness of pharmacy curriculum emphasizing the importance of key communication skills, and the lack of adequate assessment tools to evaluate student communication skills during rotation.

Starting in January ‘08, Rickles and his team will conduct tapings of students counseling patients (“actors” recruited from the community) to create a baseline of their skills. Also, selected community pharmacists will participate in training workshops, where they will use skills including: how to open, close and organize a counseling session; how to appropriate verbal and non-verbal skills, as well as question-asking, probing and assessment skills; active listening and emphatic responding; working with difficult and confused patients; and how to motivate. Preceptors will also be trained to assess the communication skills of the students on rotation.

Students will be sent to both non-trained and trained preceptors for rotations. Communication experts will view and evaluate tapings done at the end of these rotations, not knowing whether or not the preceptors at the site have participated in the training workshop. Based on the experts’ feedback, the surveys completed by the students, as well as the researchers’ on-site evaluations, Rickles and his team will assess the impact of trained preceptors on students’ key communication and patient counseling skills.

“Our hope is to eventually create a national model that will bridge the gap between classroom and experiential learning in terms of crucial patient-pharmacist communication,” said Rickles. “This will also lead to better patient outcomes.”

The study will run through December of 2008.

For more information on Professor Rickles’ study, please contact Renata Nyul at 617-373-7424 or at

About Northeastern

Founded in 1898, Northeastern University is a private research university located in the heart of Boston. Northeastern is a leader in interdisciplinary research, urban engagement, and the integration of classroom learning with real-world experience. The university’s distinctive cooperative education program, where students alternate semesters of full-time study with semesters of paid work in fields relevant to their professional interests and major, is one of the largest and most innovative in the world. The University offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges, eight graduate schools, and two part-time divisions. For more information, please visit

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