Pharmacists have fingers in the dike, how long can they hold?

Articles
December 18, 2008

Pharmacists have fingers in the dike, how long can they hold?

For all the unemployment shaking the country today, there’s one profession that’s begging for recruits—one that’s respected and well-compensated, and an increasing part of the daily ritual for people 50 and older, who take seven times more medications than younger people. Welcome to pharmacy, the field in which bright-eyed graduates with their six-year PharmD degrees can earn close to six figures in many markets across the U.S. They’re even more valuable to retail practice if they have the technology gene (as do so many in this generation) and are compassionate enough to help develop new revenue streams by consulting with chronically ill Medicare recipients on their regimens. Today’s pharmacist shortage remains a broken part of the nation’s health care system. It has needed to be fixed for nearly two decades now, but the addition of pharmacy schools hasn’t ever pumped out the numbers of new pharmacists demanded by an aging, medication-hungry populace that is frustrated by managed care, and often turns to the corner or chain pharmacists as free, accessible sources of healthcare information. How bad is the problem? In 2001, the non-profit Pharmacy Manpower Project said that by the year 2020, our nation’s supply of pharmacists will likely fall short of the need by 157,000. Besides thin coverage, it seems in that sort of operating environment that medication errors will slip by, even with more safety technologies in place as backups support.

For all the unemployment shaking the country today, there’s one profession that’s begging for recruits—one that’s respected and well-compensated, and an increasing part of the daily ritual for people 50 and older, who take seven times more medications than younger people.

Welcome to pharmacy, the field in which bright-eyed graduates with their six-year PharmD degrees can earn close to six figures in many markets across the U.S.  They’re even more valuable to retail practice if they have the technology gene (as do so many in this generation) and are compassionate enough to help develop new revenue streams by consulting with chronically ill Medicare recipients on their regimens.

Today’s pharmacist shortage remains a broken part of the nation’s health care system. It has needed to be fixed for nearly two decades now, but the addition of pharmacy schools hasn’t ever pumped out the numbers of new pharmacists demanded by an aging, medication-hungry populace that is frustrated by managed care, and often turns to the corner or chain pharmacists as free, accessible sources of healthcare information.

How bad is the problem? In 2001, the non-profit Pharmacy Manpower Project said that by the year 2020, our nation’s supply of pharmacists will likely fall short of the need by 157,000. Besides thin coverage, it seems in that sort of operating environment that medication errors will slip by, even with more safety technologies in place as backups support.

Pharmacists are like the old country doc in many parts of the country, a veritable lifeline, as Associated Press depicted in a recent article about budget problems affecting a planned $60 million expansion of the University of Kansas’ School of Pharmacy. “Thirty-one of Kansas’ 105 counties have only one pharmacy, while six others have none,” the report said. According to Debra Billingsley, executive secretary for the Kansas State Board of Pharmacists, the number of complaints to the board this year is about twice as high as in recent years, she told AP. “Most of those involve customers who received the wrong medicine or dosage…though some of the increase is from people becoming aware they could report problems to the board.”

As the pharmacist shortfall expands, this microcosm grows scarier. Certainly, as the incoming Obama Administration sets healthcare priorities to go along with its planned revamp of the nation’s health insurance system, this topic will be a worthwhile part of its agenda.