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Community Practice Innovation Center to connect patients with resources

A one-stop shop for patients dealing with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and opioid- or psychostimulant-use disorder, is what Sharrel Pinto, director of the Community Practice Innovation Center, is building. The center will use a community-based, holistic approach to connect patients with services that will improve their quality of life—and may ultimately serve as an example for other states.

Professor Sharrel Pinto showing a client how to use an inhaler
Professor Pinto, who directs the Community Practice Innovation Center, teaches a client how to use an inhaler.

“The mission of this center is to elevate care for communities,” said Pinto, the Hoch Family Endowed Professor for Community Pharmacy Practice at South Dakota State University and head of its Department of Allied and Population Health. “A center like this is constantly reaching out and learning from people, listening to their stories to understand the landscape and then responding to changing needs within their communities.”

Pinto recently received two national awards. The Community Pharmacy Innovation in Quality Award recognizes high-performing individuals involved in innovative community pharmacy practice that results in improvements in quality of care, medication optimization and patient outcomes.  The American Pharmacists Association acknowledged Pinto’s professional achievements and service to the profession with the Academy of Pharmaceutical Research and Science Fellow Award.

Pinto recognized the support of Jane Mort, Dean Emerita of the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions, as instrumental to making this center a reality. “These achievements represent great strides in the goal to scientifically validate better health outcomes through the engagement of existing resources in new and better ways.  The speed in which these steps have been executed reflects the need for this work and the great skill of Dr. Pinto and her team. This is truly amazing work!” Mort said.

Five SDSU faculty members—assistant professor Alex Middendorf and associate professor Deidra Van Gilder and assistant professor Jennifer Ball of Department of Pharmacy Practice and assistant professors Erin Miller and Aaron Hunt of the Department of Allied and Population Health—work with Pinto at the center in Sioux Falls and Brookings. Currently, the center has three active federally funded research projects.

Pinto leads the research team working with South Dakota Department of Health through annual funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to build community-based programs that help improve medication adherence and patient outcomes. The five-year project, which is in its fourth year, has leveraged more than $2.4 million in funding to help care for patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Hunt and Miller direct those working on the Stigma, Treatment, Avoidance, and Recovery in Time in South Dakota, or START-SD, program, a three-year, $1 million Health Resources and Services Administration project aimed at reducing overdose deaths due to opioid-use disorder. Recently, the research team, led by Miller, received a three-year, $500,000 HRSA grant for the Stigma, Treatment, Avoidance, and Recovery in Time Program for Psychostimulant Support in Rural South Dakota, or START-SD-PSS, program to reduce deaths due to psychostimulants, such as methamphetamines and cocaine.

Building connections

Through the center, patients and their families, who are often caregivers, can find community resources that they may not know about or may not know how to access, Pinto explained. This center will help ease the burden on physicians, particularly those in rural areas, by connecting patients with dieticians, pharmacists, physical and respiratory therapists, as well as SDSU Extension and other state and federal support programs. What the researchers learn through these research projects will also help train the next generation of practitioners.

"Though a lot of innovation and scientific research has gone into drug discovery and development, the work on the community side involving unique approaches to patient care has been fairly limited,” Pinto said. That can lead to poor health outcomes for patients, thereby increasing the share of health care resources devoted to caring for these sick individuals.

“Part of innovation is figuring out how to reach communities that are hard to access,” Pinto said. For example, care that patient once had to travel to receive is now at their fingertips through telehealth visits. “One of the outcomes of the pandemic has been increased use of technology to deliver care and bring comfort to patients and their caregivers.” The center will continue to build on these advancements in health care while also assessing other gaps in care.

Partnering in research

As a community-based research hub, the center will use the results of these funded research projects to expand the programs currently being developed and tested in three to four counties. 

“Oftentimes, the greatest innovation comes from rural settings, such as those in South Dakota, because they have the most need, yet have limited resources,” she said. “It’s about addressing disparities in health care, particularly in diverse rural communities.”

More than 75% of South Dakota counties have been designated as medically underserved areas and more than 90% have a shortage of mental health care professionals, according to the South Dakota Department of Health website.

“Our state offers us a means to pilot and set up these programs and services working with large health care systems, such as Avera Health, Sanford Health and Monument Health. Through this center, we hope to not only improve communities in South Dakota, but also be an example for the rest of the nation by sharing the innovations that we have tested and improved,” Pinto said.

Her goal is to leverage grant funding, service contracts and philanthropic outreach to facilitate innovation in community practice. 

“We hope that as we start sharing more about the center, we will have community businesses, professional and state organizations, health care practitioners, legislators and members of Congress who reach out to learn about all the resources that can be brought to bear. By working together, we can make meaningful changes and have a bigger impact across the state and nation,” Pinto concluded.