The Pharmacist Shortage: A Tipping Point in Healthcare
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The Pharmacist Shortage: A Tipping Point in Healthcare

November 15, 2023

By Shawn Spencer, PhD, RPh, Dean and Chief Academic Officer, PCOM School of Pharmacy

The healthcare industry is currently grappling with a severe shortage of pharmacists, a matter that is gaining increasing attention in the headlines. This situation is not just another blip in the business cycle; it appears to be an ongoing issue with no clear resolution in sight. With the number of pharmacy school graduates steadily declining and a growing number of job postings, it's evident that the demand for pharmacists may reach unprecedented levels in the foreseeable future.

Key Points
  • The healthcare industry faces a critical shortage of pharmacists.
  • The shortage is ongoing with no clear resolution, fueled by declining pharmacy graduates.
  • In underserved areas, this shortage is magnified, creating "pharmacy deserts".
  • The urgent need to address this crisis may present unprecedented opportunities for PharmD graduates.

In 2022, the healthcare industry saw the graduation of 13,323 new pharmacists from 136 pharmacy schools reporting to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP). This number was down from 14,223 the previous year, marking the largest drop since 1983 [XLS]. But what's particularly alarming is that only 9,743 students were accepted through the Pharmacy College Application Service (PharmCAS) by the application deadline of June 2023. This unsettling statistic indicates a sharp decrease in new entrants to the job market within the next four years. While some of this decline can be attributed to lower overall enrollment in post-secondary education, it's also possible that many aspiring healthcare professionals are unaware of the diverse career opportunities available to pharmacy graduates.

The pharmacist shortage isn't just a numbers game; it's become a tipping point for healthcare access. The shortage is magnified in underserved areas, creating what's known as "pharmacy deserts," where patients have limited or no access to essential medications and health advice which is particularly acute in Georgia. As this crisis unfolds, the consequences are profound. Patients in these deserts face greater challenges in managing chronic conditions, receiving timely medications, and accessing vital healthcare services.

Let's contrast this shrinking talent pool with the surging demand for pharmacists. According to the AACP’s Pharmacy Demand Report, there were a staggering 60,882 job postings for pharmacists in the first three quarters of 2023. This represented a remarkable 17.9% increase compared to the same period in 2022, which followed an impressive 11.6% leap from 2021. Among these job postings, the majority were for retail pharmacists (31,870), closely followed by clinical pharmacists (15,652), hospital pharmacists (5,695), and a wide range of other pharmacist roles (4,646), including informatics pharmacists and nuclear pharmacists. Additionally, there were 3,019 job postings for pharmacy director roles.

Shawn Spencer, PhD, RPh, Dean and Chief Academic Officer, PCOM School of Pharmacy
Shawn Spencer, PhD, RPh, Dean and Chief Academic Officer, PCOM School of Pharmacy

For recent pharmacy graduates, this shortage translates into unprecedented opportunities. As the demand for pharmacists continues to rise, salaries and sign-on bonuses have reached new heights. In May 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median pharmacist salary of $132,750. Some markets are even offering signing bonuses exceeding $50,000.

However, it's essential to recognize that this shortage comes at a cost to patient care, leading to shorter pharmacy hours, store closures in various locations, and reports of worsening working conditions. But for prospective pharmacy students, this crisis presents an opportunity. Those concerned about working conditions at large pharmacy chains can find solace in the fact that only about half of graduates pursue careers in community pharmacy. Other career options include entrepreneurship, opening independent pharmacies, or working in neighborhood drugstores. The remaining graduates have a wide array of career opportunities available to them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a quarter of pharmacists work in hospitals, health systems, and home health.

At PCOM School of Pharmacy, we place a strong emphasis on a comprehensive curriculum which prepares our graduates for diverse pharmacy careers. Our program includes training in ambulatory care, managed care, and acute care pharmacy. According to the Pharmacy Demand Report 2022 Yearly Summary, three of the top nine employers for new job postings are in managed care at major healthcare companies like UnitedHealth, Anthem, and Aetna.

In summary, the pharmacist shortage is not just a challenge; it has become a tipping point in raising public awareness of the dire need for accessible healthcare services and the diverse and rewarding career options available in healthcare for pharmacists. The urgency to address pharmacy deserts and improve healthcare access is at an all-time high with far-reaching implications for both the healthcare industry and underserved communities. This crisis necessitates creative solutions and greater public awareness to ensure equitable access to healthcare services. The implementation of "test and treat" programs in various states is a testament to the innovative role pharmacists can play in addressing the pressing issue of healthcare access.

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