Feb 6, 2024 - Health

Pharmacies are struggling to refill their own ranks

Illustration of a graduation cap in the shape of a red cross

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Pharmacy retail chains staking their future on expanding the health care services they offer are running into a big problem: It's getting harder to draw the next generation of pharmacists amid turmoil in the industry.

Why it matters: The pharmacies' ambitions to become go-to providers for vaccinations, patient monitoring and even prescribing are being threatened by workforce shortages and burnout, as well as a flagging talent pipeline from the nation's pharmacy schools.

Driving the news: Walgreens on Monday announced a partnership with pharmacy school deans at 17 universities to better align training with the changing pharmacy business model.

  • But the goal is also, in part, to address the industry's image problem.

What they're saying: "We have got to evolve this to get people excited to get back in the industry," Rick Gates, chief pharmacy officer at Walgreens, told Axios.

The big picture: There's been a steady drop in applications to pharmacy schools, falling 64% from nearly 100,000 in 2012 to about 36,000 in 2022, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy.

  • In 2022, there were 13,323 graduates from four-year pharmacy programs, down from 14,223 the previous year and the largest drop since 1983, per AACP data.
  • Widely publicized staff walkouts in recent months have called attention to increased workload demands that pharmacists warned are making them more prone to errors.
  • There's been a big shift from the time when pharmacists were revered members of their community, said Frank Harvey, CEO of Surescripts and a pharmacist. Expanding the services that pharmacists provide, while cutting down other workloads, can help restore that respect, he said.
  • "We've gone through this 20- or 30- or 40-year span where the pharmacists' job got diluted," he said. "If we could just get it back to what the perception was 50 years ago."
  • "We were seen as the doc, you know? I had a ton of my patients who used to call me, 'Doc, can you help me out with this?'"

Zoom in: The University of North Carolina's Eshelman School of Pharmacy, which is part of the new Walgreens initiative, two years ago added more comprehensive education around the business of health care.

  • "They didn't really understand the business of health care in this country. How does a drug get from a manufacturer to a patient?" Angela Kashuba, the school's dean, told Axios.
  • It's an example of the kind of updates that need to take place in pharmacy schools, she said.

Between the lines: In response to concerns about overwork, national retailers including Walgreens and CVS Health are trying to streamline and eliminate some tasks by investing heavily in automation and micro-fulfillment centers where robots do most of the work.

  • They've also begun making headway in getting insurers to recognize pharmacies' ability to furnish care amid shortages of other providers and to pay for this work, said Walgreens' Gates.
  • The industry's attempts to transform itself, he said, should ultimately help pharmacists prioritize what's usually the most fulfilling part of their job — helping patients.
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