Saturday, January 8, 2005

Next year’s implementation of a new Medicare drug benefit is expected to increase the nation’s demand for pharmacists, who already are in short supply.

About 230,000 pharmacists were employed in 2002, and 25,000 more will be needed by 2012, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The good news is although there is a shortage of pharmacists, there is no shortage in the number of people who want to become pharmacists,” said David Knapp, the dean for University of Maryland’s Pharmacy School.

Mr. Knapp said 260,000 pharmacists would be needed by 2020, with an expected shortfall of 157,000.

The shortfall is largely being caused by the increased services patients and doctors are demanding from pharmacists, he said.

Even though there has been a surge in applications during the past decade, “we’re not graduating enough students,” Mr. Knapp said. The school, which increased its capacity four years ago, has been graduating 120 students each spring.

While pharmacist vacancies at drugstore chains are slowly dropping from a record high in 2001, the amount is still “substantial,” according to the latest survey by the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, an Alexandria trade group for 200 companies operating pharmacies.

There were 4,024 pharmacist openings in July, down 48 percent from a five-year peak of 7,743 vacancies in August 2001, the report said.

Although the number of openings has plunged, drugstores and pharmacy schools will need to step up their efforts to keep the number of openings from tumbling back into a “crisis period,” said Kurt Proctor, spokesman for the association.

Prescription drug use is rising for all ages, according to a December Health and Human Services Department report, with 44 percent of Americans on at least one prescription from 1999 to 2000. About 39 percent of Americans used prescriptions from 1988 to 1994, the report said.

Pharmacy trade groups said pharmacists may be overburdened to make up the shortage when the Medicare benefit plan starts in 2006.

The federal program, which will pay for senior citizens’ prescription drugs, also will pay pharmacists to advise patients on prescription use.

Some advocacy groups for the elderly such as AARP have been monitoring the decline in health care positions such as nurses and pharmacists for the past few years with the fear that increased demand on pharmacists could slow down services.

The Department of Health and Human Services originally identified a pharmacist shortage in 2000 when it found unfilled drugstore pharmacist positions in America had risen from 2,700 in 1998 to 7,000 in 2000.

During that period, demand for health care services shot up and pharmacy schools changed degrees from five- to six-year programs with some schools delaying their graduating classes by a year, according to the most recent HHS data.

Hospitals and health clinics in particular are at risk for unfilled positions, said Doug Scheckelhoff, spokesman for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, a Bethesda trade group for 30,000 pharmacists in the hospital sector.

These positions tend to be harder to fill because they require more education and experience and compete with lucrative jobs at pharmaceutical and drugstore companies, Mr. Scheckelhoff said.

Technology such as automated prescription-filling systems and pharmacy technicians have eased some of the work for pharmacists, who still must sign off on all prescriptions. Assistants still must do most of the manual work.

But Daniel Ashby, pharmacy director at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said technicians and automated-filling systems are only quick fixes to a larger problem.

Pharmacist recruiting “is a constant area of activity for us,” he said, adding his department employs 145 pharmacists and has 12 openings.

The Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest has six openings for pharmacists, a higher-than-usual vacancy rate, said Karl Gumpper, clinical pharmacy manager.

“It definitely concerns us. I think the pharmacist pool is not as large as it used to be,” Mr. Gumpper said.

CVS Corp. spokesman Todd Andrews said the Woonsocket, R.I., drugstore chain’s 50 locations in the District were “in good shape” with their pharmacists, declining to give the number of openings. Mr. Andrews credited the company’s salaries, benefits and automated-filling systems for retaining pharmacists.

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