COMMENTARY

The Pharmacist Shortage: Where Do We Stand?

Charlotte A. Kenreigh, PharmD; Linda Timm Wagner, PharmD

Disclosures

January 13, 2006

In This Article

What Has Been Done to Address the Shortage?

Concerns about a pharmacist shortage have been evident for more than a decade. In 1999, Congress mandated a study to explain and address the shortage,[6] concluding that simply increasing the number of students enrolled in pharmacy programs would not solve the shortage unless it was accompanied by an increase in pharmacy faculty and an expansion of the educational system. Another important study in 2002 projected a shortfall of more than 150,000 pharmacists by 2020,[7] generating much discussion in the media.

The Pharmacy Education Aid Act of 2003 was introduced to help increase the supply of pharmacists and to increase the educational capacity of the nation's colleges of pharmacy. This was the first time the profession received this much public attention, and pharmacy leaders hoped that the Act would ease the shortage. The bill passed the Senate and was introduced in the House of Representatives in late 2003. However, it never became law and was cleared from the books after the end of the Congressional session.[8]

As it became difficult to fill pharmacist positions across the country, pharmacist salaries rose sharply. This trend likely helped promote the profession and contributed to an increase in enrollments at pharmacy colleges. Enrollments in first professional degree programs for fall 2004 were up 5.1% from fall 2003, to a total of 43,908.[9]

In fall 2004, 66.5% of enrollees in first professional degree programs were females, and almost 60% were white Americans.[9] An under-representation of minorities persists, and the percentage of the total enrollees actually decreased slightly from 2003 to 2004. A total of 8158 first professional degrees (4.8% baccalaureate, 95.2% PharmD) were conferred in 2003-04. This reflects an 8.9% increase from 2002-03 and is the highest number of first professional pharmacy degrees conferred in the past decade since 1998.[9]

To meet expanding enrollments, as many as 10 new schools of pharmacy are expected to open by the year 2010, and current pharmacy programs are ramping up to meet demand as well.[10] Unfortunately, the ability of these programs to effectively meet the need is somewhat hampered by a faculty shortage and the ability to recruit and retain faculty.

Some of the pain associated with the pharmacist shortage has been addressed by incorporating technological advances into practice sites to support the technical functions of the dispensing process. In addition, the role of the pharmacy technician has been expanded to give pharmacists more time to spend with patients and in review of more complex therapies. These trends may also ease the strain of an increased prescription load on the current medication use system, but additional pharmacists will continue to be needed.

Pharmacy is not the only healthcare profession facing a shortage. Nursing is already experiencing a shortage that is expected to continue, and physician shortages also are anticipated. In Europe, where shortages have already emerged in all of the healthcare professions, increased collaboration among providers has blurred traditional professional roles.[11] Pharmacists in the United States could see similar changes if these shortages persist.

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