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U.S. Pharmacist Shortage Looms: Survey

Many are over 55, and new recruits are drawn to part-time work

FRIDAY, March 17, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. pharmacists could be become a rare breed over the coming decade, as aging male practitioners retire and workers of both genders choose part-time work over a full-time work week, a new survey reveals.

The shortage looms even as the demand for prescription services rises, and pharmacists themselves call for more time to focus on patient care (such as immunization and drug counseling), beyond just dispensing medications.

"The key message is that there is a shortage of pharmacists," said survey project director David A. Mott, an associate professor in the school of pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin. "And certainly, pharmacists are busier than ever, and they may not have enough time to spend with patients answering questions about how to take their medications."

The survey, presented Friday at the American Pharmacists Association's annual meeting in San Francisco, was prepared by the Pharmacy Manpower Project Inc., a non-profit grouping of national pharmaceutical, professional, and trade organizations.

Mott and his colleagues reviewed written questionnaires completed in 2004 by 1,470 pharmacists randomly sampled from across the United States.

The surveys collected information on the pharmacists' demographic and employment status, hours worked per week, type and quality of work environment, and his or her future work plans.

The portrait that emerges is one of a shrinking workforce and the potential for a real shortage over the coming decade.

Almost 46 percent of practicing pharmacists are now female, the survey revealed -- up from 31 percent in 1990 and rising slightly since 2000. More than a quarter of these women are working part-time.

Just over 15 percent of male pharmacists were also found to be working similarly shortened hours.

Pharmacists are also an aging group, particularly men. More than 40 percent of male pharmacists are over 55, compared with just 10 percent of female pharmacists.

The researchers also found that, overall, both full- and part-time pharmacists -- whether stationed in a chain, supermarket, independent business, or hospital -- are working less than they did four years ago, while earning an average 38 percent more for their time.

Yet, despite a cutback in their work week, pharmacists are actually handling more prescriptions now than in the past -- presumably taking advantage of a rise in the number of non-pharmacist technicians who now assist drugstore customers.

Technology may also figure in pharmacists' ability to maintain service levels more efficiently. More than 60 percent of those surveyed said new equipment -- such as refill phone systems, bar coding, and medication counters -- have improved both productivity and quality of care, while boosting job satisfaction.

However, as technology improves service, it appears to be geared more toward enabling the faster dispensing of drugs, rather than expanding patient-care services such as face-to-face consultations.

In this respect, Mott and his team found that as pharmacies change, pharmacists still spend most of their time doing what they've always done: dispensing medications. In fact, pharmacists indicated that nearly half of their time is spent filling prescriptions, much as it was in 2000.

Patient consultation takes up 19 percent of their time, followed by business management (16 percent) and drug-use management (13 percent).

In general, the pharmacists said this emphasis on filling prescriptions takes away from consultation and drug-use management.

More than one out of every two pharmacists said their workload was high or excessively high, with 58 percent stating that their workload had increased (sometimes greatly) over the prior year.

Stress also figured into the work mix. Pharmacists often complained of inadequate staff, workloads that may hamper the level of service they can provide, difficulties with hard-to-handle patients, and being interrupted by people and phone calls.

Yet, despite these reservations, the survey did uncover several positive indicators. The pharmacist's attitude toward his or her job, for example, has become a more rosy one since 2000, particularly among those employed by independent stores.

More than 77 percent said they have a high level of job satisfaction, up from 66 percent in 2000.

Mott's team believes the nation's pharmacy schools need to emphasize this good news, while acknowledging that the industry is changing.

"We're looking 10 or 15 years down the road at a real change in our pool of pharmacists," said Mott. "There are only about 100 pharmacy schools in the country that graduate about 80 to 100 students [each] per year, so there's a limit to how we can deal with a shortage."

Sharlea Leatherwood, a past president of the National Community Pharmacists Association and a pharmacy owner in Kansas City, Mo., agreed that the problem is real and looming.

"We are experiencing a very large growth in the boomer population, and they are the ones who are taking a very large number of the meds," she noted. "So, the need for filling prescriptions grows just as we are losing pharmacists. This makes for a very serious situation."

More information

For more on pharmacy issues, visit the American Pharmacists Association.

SOURCES: David A. Mott, Ph.D., associate professor, school of pharmacy, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Sharlea Leatherwood, past president, National Community Pharmacists Association, D.C., and pharmacy owner, Kansas City, Mo.; March 17, 2006, presentation, American Pharmacists Association annual meeting, San Francisco
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