Potential Unsafe Shortage of Pharmacists Persists

June 19, 2002
News Office: Wallace Ravven (415) 502-6397

The 118 graduates of the UCSF School of Pharmacy -- the nation's top-ranked pharmacy school -- face a surging job market as they prepare to graduate June 22. They enter their profession as the nation faces a potentially dangerous shortage of pharmacists, according to a federal study and state experts.

The main reasons include:

  • Increasing specialization among pharmacists
  • A rapid increase in prescriptions in the last decade
  • An aging population that tends to use more medications
  • The growth of 24-hour pharmacies
  • Increasing administrative demands competing for pharmacists' time
  • Following their four-year professional program, UCSF's clinically trained pharmacy graduates are in high demand. After they pass the state Pharmacy Board exams, about half of the UCSF pharmacy graduates each year tend to accept pharmacy residencies, while about half take jobs in pharmacies. The residencies are one-to two-year positions in which the pharmacists pursue advanced studies and often gain more specialized training. More than half of these graduates accept residencies run by University of California or the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the school's statistics.

    Of those who take positions in pharmacies, the majority tend to work for chainstore pharmacies. About a quarter accept jobs in inpatient hospital pharmacies, and almost the same number find positions in health maintenance organizations, pharmaceutical companies and other health-related businesses. Strikingly, few graduates go to work for independent pharmacies -- a shrinking institution.

    "The pharmacy job market is wide open," said Mary Anne Koda-Kimble, dean of the UCSF School of Pharmacy. "Our doctor of pharmacy graduates can almost write their own career tickets."

    In past years, Koda-Kimble explained, most graduates went directly into practice in community pharmacies or in hospitals. But "sea changes in science and health care have increased the demand for the special expertise of pharmacists. As a result, graduates are now pursuing careers in research, specialty clinical care, governmental agencies and as pharmacy benefit managers in large physician practices - just to name a few."

    This aggravates a growing gap between demand and supply for the community and hospital pharmacist, she says. In December of 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report documenting the emergence of a pharmacists shortage and forecasting decreasing time for pharmacist-patient contact and increasing dangers of pharmacist errors.

    "The pharmacist shortage in some communities is a prescription for increasing medication errors," Koda-Kimble warned. "Our challenge is to ensure there are enough pharmacists in traditional settings to meet the health care needs of consumers. We're all aging. More and more complex medications are hitting the market, and as the aging population takes more kinds of drugs, the risk of harmful interactions increases. It's clear that the care and expertise of pharmacists is more important than ever."

    "The absolute number of pharmacists will not meet the future demand if we continue to insist that pharmacists practice in traditional ways," Koda-Kimble says. "Instead, systematic changes in the drug distribution system will be needed to free more time for pharmacists to assess drug therapy and consult with patients and other health care providers."

    Steps to ease the problem include:

  • Raising the number of pharmacy technicians pharmacists are allowed to supervise
  • Increasing the use of computerized drug dispensing systems
  • Centralizing operations for prescription refills
  • Standardizing drug benefit cards across all health insurance plans
  • Using communication technology to enhance meaningful and timely communication between patients and pharmacists
  • Changing the state law that makes California the only state that doesn't allow licensed pharmacists from other states to automatically become licensed here
  • UCSF's School of Pharmacy regularly leads the nation's pharmacy schools in the amount of research funds granted by the National Institutes of Health. It has also consistently ranked as the top school of pharmacy in national rankings, including the survey published by US News and World Report.

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