COVID proved pharmacists are vital. There aren’t enough students to meet the demand

Ronald E. Ragan and Russell B. Melchert

This guest commentary appeared in the Kansas City Star Nov. 10, 2022

The line at your local pharmacy may be getting longer soon — and that’s assuming the one you are visiting can even find a pharmacist to work. The line may be lengthening and store closures may be increasing because there just aren’t enough pharmacists graduating from schools of pharmacy and entering the practice. Our prediction is that within the next 12 to 18 months, we are headed for a national shortage of pharmacists that could dramatically impact the care that millions of patients receive every day in the United States.

This scenario is eerily similar to the early 2000s, when pharmacy managers couldn’t find enough pharmacists to take care of patients who were shopping for critical services. For those of us who were in practice during this workforce crisis, we remember pharmacists working long hours, six to seven days per week, and still struggling to meet the needs of their patients. As scientists, we rely on data to make decisions. Our prediction of a national workforce crisis in pharmacy is based on changes in three important indicators that we monitor:

▪ A greater demand for pharmacy graduates than schools are producing, as measured by inquiries from pharmacies seeking pharmacy school graduates.
▪ Rapidly escalating sign-on bonuses to attract new pharmacists.
▪ A decrease in the number of qualified applicants to pharmacy schools.

According to data from the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, the number of students beginning pharmacy school nationwide increased by 53% from 2002 to 2012. However, since 2012, enrollment has declined by 21%. We believe that patients across our nation will need to plan for frequent service interruptions or delays in their pharmacy services, and that’s a prescription for disaster. A significant cause of the looming crisis is the dwindling supply of pharmacists nationwide. Some of that is the result of increasing prescription volumes, due partly to vaccine demand during the coronavirus crisis. Pharmacists across the nation stepped up and provided a majority of COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic. While this was a massive portion of our country’s response to the disease, it added to pharmacists’ already heavy workload, often without additional support or help.

Another factor contributing to the impending shortage is the extraordinarily narrow margins pharmacies now operate on, greatly impacted by corporate policies, large insurance companies and purchasing middlemen — pharmacy benefit managers — that make it difficult to adequately staff pharmacies. This understaffing erodes patient care and decreases safety in pharmacies across the nation.

Finally, pharmacists are leaving the profession at a high rate because of a general concern for the changing practice environment that leads many to question if they can protect their patients adequately. While we don’t have all the answers to this looming crisis, it is clear that we need to increase the number of capable students entering the profession. We need a new generation of leaders who want to be the most accessible health care providers in their communities, and are excited about the expanding role they will play in their patients’ lives and the neighborhoods they live in.

Ronald E. Ragan is dean and professor of the University of Kansas School of Pharmacy. He co-authored this with Russell B. Melchert, dean and professor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Pharmacy.