A shortage of hospital pharmacists is on the horizon, leaders say

As applications for pharmacy schools and residency programs wither, hospital pharmacy leaders are warily preparing for a shortage of clinical pharmacists. 

Hospitals have struggled to employ enough pharmacy technicians for years, but increasingly, acute clinical pharmacists and ambulatory pharmacists are becoming harder to come by, according to a McKinsey survey of 80 health system pharmacy leaders. 

In April, 81% of survey respondents reported understaffing of pharmacy techs, 41% indicated a shortage of acute clinical pharmacists, and 34% said they were short on ambulatory clinical pharmacists and acute pharmacists. 

"There is already a technician shortage for the last 10, 15 years. Now, to add a pharmacist shortage, it's really going to cause some pain," Nilesh Desai, chief pharmacy officer of Baptist Health System in Louisville, Ky., told Becker's

In the past decade, there's been a gradual decline in the number of applications and applicants for PharmD programs, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. The 2021-22 school year, the most recent data available, saw the lowest number of applicants, with only 11,219. In 2012-13, there were 17,617 students vying for pharmacy school openings. 

"It's certainly concerning," said Don Gruntowicz, PharmD, senior director of pharmacy services at Swedish Health Services. "We've been living with a pharmacy technician shortage for years and years and have all tried to strategize around how to focus on workforce conditions for our pharmacy technicians. Both are concerning, but we're probably more used to living with the pharmacy technician shortage. Now, pharmacists are starting to creep into that."

Forty-five percent of Mr. Desai and Dr. Gruntowicz's peers agree that staff shortages are a major concern, according to a Becker's poll conducted in early October. Demand for hospital pharmacists has increased 15% since 2022, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. 

"We need more pharmacist's hands on deck to do more work from a patient care perspective," Mr. Desai said, adding that pharmacists have more workplace options than they did 20 years ago, exacerbating the need for them to stay in healthcare. 

The AACP plans to publish Pharmacy College Application Service data for the 2022-23 school year in November. As hospitals wait to see if the downward trend continues, pharmacy directors and officers are diving into retention and engagement efforts. 

Dr. Gruntowicz and Kuldip Patel, PharmD, senior associate chief pharmacy officer of Duke University Hospital, recommend leaders focus on encouraging employees' well-being and a healthy work-life balance. 

Neither are seeing high pharmacy turnover in their own markets — Seattle and Durham, N.C., respectively — but Dr. Patel said he's noticed a drop in enrollment in post-graduation pharmacy residency programs, and Dr. Gruntowicz said he's worried about rural hospital pharmacy services.

Pressures during the COVID-19 pandemic spurred this trend, according to Anna Legreid Dopp, senior director of government relations for the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. Pharmacists felt the same pressures nurses and other healthcare employees felt during the pandemic, Ms. Legreid Dopp said, and high attrition followed.

"I think the workload and burnout in the healthcare field is just causing people to reevaluate [and] rethink what their priorities are," Dr. Gruntowicz said. "Some have chosen to leave the healthcare field altogether. It's concerning for the profession of pharmacy, and it's certainly concerning for other fields, such as nursing and medicine."

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