04/01/2013 05:02 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Helping STEM Leaders of Tomorrow Flower Today

A great irony exists these days surrounding technology. While today's youth are inseparable from their laptops, smartphones, and tablets, fewer students than ever are pursuing the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (also known as the STEM subjects) that make the devices they take for granted possible.

Statistics show that there is great need for increasing STEM education in the United States. Even in the midst of challenging economic times, it is projected that over 1.2 million STEM-related jobs will go unfilled in this country by 2018. Indeed, in the first ever "State of STEM" address delivered in February, John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, stressed the critical importance of students achieving higher levels of education in these subjects. And pharmacy is very much a branch of STEM.

Just as technology breakthroughs have transformed our lives -- try recalling life before the Internet and cellphones -- new advances are also helping to make the practice of medicine, and pharmacy in particular, more efficient and convenient for patients, doctors, and pharmacists.

What role does technology play in the safe and effective administration of pharmaceuticals? Almost 50 percent of Americans have used at least one prescription drug in the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that statistic might not surprise some, perhaps the more shocking figure is that almost three out of every four Americans do not take their medication properly.

"Drugs don't work," the late U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was famously quoted saying, "in patients who don't take them." Indeed, in addition to the poor impact on health outcomes, high rates of medication non-adherence cost the U.S. health care system an estimated $100 billion each year in treatment and care.

Considering how quickly technology is evolving in the STEM fields, similar opportunities for creativity and innovation are waiting to be applied to the pharmacy industry. For example, at OptumRx, we developed a prescription reminder program that sends patients text messages reminding them to renew their prescriptions and daily reminders to take their medications.

In order to help spur future pharmacy-related advances, we asked the nation's high school students to develop creative and inspired real-world solutions for issues facing the pharmacy field as part of the Pharmacy is Right for Me Innovation Challenge.

What if customers could be incentivized for taking their medication in the way that the doctor prescribed? What if the patient's adherence was measured by sensors in pills that would tell the pharmacy the date and time the pill was consumed? While this product doesn't exist yet, the idea, which is based upon existing medical technologies, was developed by three students from Seaman High School in Topeka, Kansas.

What if a stand-alone booth, similar to a RedBox movie rental dispenser, could offer two-way communication with licensed pharmacists and the ability to dispense medication? Versions of this product have been available, but three students from Fort Myers, Florida pushed the idea further by proposing a broad campaign to install customized dispensers throughout rural areas of the U.S.

The Pharmacy is Right for Me Innovation Challenge helps to prepare students for real-world STEM-related jobs. It's for that reason we teamed up to engage students across the U.S. through hands-on competition with the American Pharmacists Association and Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

We applaud other initiatives that encourage high school students to develop practical, real-world solutions using science, technology, engineering, and math skills, while exposing youngsters to potential career avenues. These include the robotics competitions run by For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) and the Wouldn't It Be Cool If... competition, a new effort from Time Warner Cable that's part of its larger $100 million philanthropic commitment, Connect a Million Minds, and co-presented by my own FIRST, with Dean Kamen's FIRST as a key partner.

Working together, we can help the STEM leaders of tomorrow flower today.