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Are pharmacy schools graduating too many students?

Photo: Patricia H. via Flickr CC

Here’s a bit of health care news you probably haven’t heard too much of lately: America is graduating too many future health care providers.

Yet according to Dan Brown, Pharm.D., a professor of pharmacy practice at Palm Beach Atlantic University, that’s exactly the case when it comes to graduation rates at United States pharmacy schools.

“The doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree became the exclusive first professional degree as of 2000, bringing with it expectations for a dramatic expansion of direct patient care roles for pharmacists,” Brown recently wrote in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. “Just one year later the pharmacy academy began a period of unprecedented growth, fueled by a long-standing shortage of pharmacists and an outstanding job market for new pharmacy graduates, making jobs for Pharm.D. graduates easy to find and causing salaries to spiral upward. As a result, the Pharm.D. degree became a hot commodity, generating a seemingly inexhaustible supply of applicants to colleges and schools of pharmacy.”

According to Brown, this inordinate rate of academic growth has actually put the American Pharmacists Association Academy of Student Pharmacists at risk in terms of future student enrollment and employment opportunities. He names measured academic growth and revisiting current and future student enrollment rates as potentially key to fixing the problem.

But agreement around Brown’s position is far from universal.

University of Minnesota professor and pharmacist workforce researcher Jon Schommer, Ph.D., disagrees with his colleague’s assertion that too many pharmacists are graduating.

It’s more about “finding a path through times of change,” Schommer states at the top of a rebuttal he coauthored.

The intraprofessional contention stems from the fact that the pharmacy profession has seen a massive uptick in the number of students graduating from pharmacy school. Between 2001 and 2011 the number of accredited pharmacy schools increased 60 percent while the number of doctor of pharmacy graduates increased 70 percent. At the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy enrollment has remained comparatively stagnant during this time.

Projections on the number of pharmacists needed in coming years range broadly. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections put 45 percent of pharmacy grads on-pace to outrun employment demands for the next seven years.

Many worry the severe shortage of pharmacists seen in 2000 will be over-corrected.

“But, the model we base our projected pharmacist needs on is changing,” said Schommer. “It’s not as simple as taking the number of prescriptions that need to be dispensed and calculating based on that anymore. We can’t keep drawing a straight line prediction from the last few years’ growth into the future.”

“If the model weren’t changing, I’d safely agree with Dan [Brown]’s predictions.”

Included in Schommer’s reserve of counterpoints to the claim that too many students are graduating:

  • More graduates then ever are part-time workers, changing what the number of pharmacists graduating means in real terms.
  • Two-thirds of pharmacy school graduates are female, resulting in fewer hours worked during childbearing years.
  • While pharmacists educated in the 1960s and 70s are exiting the workforce at slower than expected rates, they still are exiting. Schommer foresees new Pharm.D.-trained graduates entering the workplace as ready to interact with medical institutes and hospitals in ways their precursors did not.
  • While pharmacy technicians or even machines are expected to dispense more and more medications in the future, the need for medication experts won’t shrink anytime soon as the health needs of America continue to expand.
  • New ways to improve medication use with the guidance of an expert continue to spring up. Pharmacy graduates are increasingly working with patients because of more pay-for-performance health insurance plans – an area they were infrequently present in previously. The cost-effective and health-results-oriented pharmacist to patient call center is also an area of previously unforeseen growth.

“We know we’re developing a new practice capacity right now,” said Schommer. “Let’s use it to improve health care by avoiding unnecessary waste and cost in health systems.”

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