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Pharmacy school to lead new center

by Beth Krane - September 10, 2007

A federal center to be established at the University may help determine which treatments your doctor recommends and which prescription drugs your health plan covers.

The five-year center also has the potential to immerse UConn faculty, graduate students, honors students, and research fellows in up to one million dollars of federally-funded work each year.

The UConn center, to be led by the School of Pharmacy in collaboration with the School of Business and Hartford Hospital, is one of 14 Evidence-based Practice Centers nationwide.

Other institutions that run such centers include Duke, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Tufts University-New England Medical Center.

The centers are charged by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with conducting comprehensive, systematic reviews of research on health topics of vital importance to the U.S. healthcare system, and advising federal and state policymakers, professional organizations, and insurance companies on the highest quality, most effective, and most cost-effective healthcare treatments and delivery options.

The topics the new UConn center will review include common medications, exorbitant treatments, and those particularly significant for Medicare and Medicaid populations.

The UConn center is the first to be led by pharmacists, notes its director, C. Michael White, an associate professor of pharmacy practice and expert on cardiac medicine.

It will also forge the first partnership between UConn’s schools of Pharmacy and Business, he says.

“Pharmacists are healthcare’s medication experts and the profession possesses unique insights into patient care that often are underrepresented among leaders formulating the nation’s healthcare policies,” White says.

“Having pharmacists, physicians, and healthcare policy experts all working together will benefit everyone. You need to have practitioners from all healthcare disciplines involved in deciding which questions you ask to provide the best, most useful answers.”

Dr. Jeffrey Kluger of Hartford Hospital will be the center’s associate director and Craig Coleman, an assistant professor of pharmacy practice, will be the center’s project manager.

John Vernon, an assistant professor of finance, who recently completed an appointment as senior economic policy advisor to the Office of the Commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will be the new center’s health policy chief.

White, Kluger, and Coleman have been working together for almost a decade.

Their collaboration has resulted in close to 200 peer-reviewed publications, including lead articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

In recent years, the research team has used a review technique known as meta-analysis to study statins, the most commonly prescribed class of medications in the United States, and the popular herbal supplement Echinacea.

Those studies, which are representative of the type of work the researchers will conduct under the new center, made international headlines largely because they pooled the totality of existing research to shed light on controversial medical topics in ways individual studies had failed to do.

“There can be so much conflicting research out there,” says Coleman, an expert in a field known as pharmacoeconomics and outcomes research.

“Often, practicing physicians and pharmacists aren’t aware of all of the available research, or the latest study is the one they remember best. The key is that we’ll be looking at all of the evidence as a whole.”

Vernon will bolster Coleman’s economics expertise and help the center translate its clinical findings into policy recommendations.

“For instance, say you find out that Drug A is better than Drug B, but Drug A is more expensive and the two drugs are not dramatically different in terms of clinical results, where do you go from there?” Coleman says.

“We’ll be weighing all the repercussions to make the best recommendations possible.”

Vernon calls the partnership between the two schools “a very natural alliance,” adding that “there are an abundance of important policy-related research questions that can be answered far more effectively from a cross-disciplinary perspective.”

UConn members of the new center’s leadership team anticipate that the chance to help shape federal healthcare policy will help them better communicate to their students the real-world applications of what they learn in the classroom.

The center will also draw on the strengths of other faculty members in Storrs and at the UConn Health Center, by inviting them to serve as content experts on specific projects.

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