May ’11 Article in IP

How many pharmacists does it take?

When I prepared last months article I mentioned that to my knowledge there has never been a manpower survey undertaken for Irish pharmacy. So in the light of the undoubted tough times facing this years crop of graduates I decided to delve a little deeper.
My initial gut feeling was that we are qualifying too many new pharmacists. We have gone from an under-supply of new pharmacists about 20-25 years ago to a massive oversupply. I think that we can all accept that the civil service, aka the hospital sector will not be recruiting any extra staff, never mind pharmacists over the next few years. So where are the 180 or so new graduates to go? It already looks like that they will have a difficult time finding a pre-reg placement. Throw in the fact that most community pharmacies are in cut-back mode rather than hiring mode at present and things are looking bleaker. And I haven’t even touched on the numbers of Irish students studying pharmacy in the UK presumably with intentions of returning home and establishing themselves here.
I decided to check to see how an equivalent European country handles this. Denmark has a similar population to Ireland. They have only one school of pharmacy. It does have 230 graduates per year but they estimate that only 15% of these will go into community pharmacy. Another 20% will go to hospital and the remainder will work in Denmark’s massive pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. That’s about 35 new community pharmacists per year and a further 45 or so for hospital. It’s a long way from 180. But then in Denmark the government and the Danish equivalent of the IPU sit down every two years to agree a level of profitability for community pharmacy. That’s near to Utopia compared to the current Irish situation.

So where are the pharmacy graduates of the last few years? Although the pharmacy degree leaves them amply qualified for a role in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry it seems that few enough have sought their future there. My queries to date would seem to indicate that many of the last few years graduates now reside in the UK. And sadly it would appear that the return to emigration is the most promising option for many. The current batch of graduates were smart enough to get into pharmacy courses in a very competitive environment. They are also smart enough to see a basic economic tenet. As supply rises price falls. The more pharmacists around the lower salaries will be. I have already seen a full time pharmacist position offered at a salary of €25,000 p.a., i.e. €12 per hour. While this position may not be typical it does represent a huge drop in salaries from just over 2 years ago. This also does not bode well for mobility in the pharmacy labour market. Just consider. If you are an employee pharmacist in a post where the salary was set during the boom times. How likely are you to move willingly to another post when the first thing you have to face is a significant drop in salary. From am employer point of view the surplus pharmacists has it’s attractions. Being able to take on new pharmacists at a lower salary definitely has some good points. But to my mind this raises questions as to the calibre of the next generation of pharmacists. What ever about the intellectual challenge of pharmacy I cannot see the elite students seeing pharmacy as a bountiful career. However if you are a pharmacist who has financed a second degree yourself then you are not going to hang around for this level of remuneration. Ryanair to Stansted is looking good. I cannot but wonder if this message will get through to the 500+ points cohort of students sitting for their leaving cert this year. If not I believe that this may be because all the talk about the drop in pharmacist prospects has been within the pharmacy sphere. If you are from outside of this milieu you would be forgiven for thinking that all was still rosy in pharmacy land.

All this begs the question should we as a nation be putting all the resources into training these future emigrant or unemployed pharmacists. I confess I don’t know the full cost of government funding for pharmacy places in the three colleges but if there is no need for them wouldn’t the money be better spent training some other graduates? We as a nation could do with a new batch of economists and bankers. God knows the last lot haven’t served us too well.

To get information for this article I emailed several bodies. The PSI, The Departments of Education and Enterprise & Employment as well as the HEA. I asked them a few things. Firstly if they were aware of any manpower studies in relation to community pharmacy and the replacement rates necessary. And for the HEA and Department of Education were there any plans to change the number of places funded in pharmacy in the light of the current downturn. And how has our overlords responded to this? The Department of Education referred me to the HEA and the Department of Employment referred me to the PSI. As for the PSI and the HEA the silence has been deafening. There are a number of issues for a regulator in this type of situation. Unemployed pharmacists are non-practising pharmacists. How might they be expected to keep their skill levels up? Similarly for pharmacists who decide to work in the manufacturing industry for a spell. How long do they have to be away from community before it may be necessary for them to undergo a period of re-acquainting themselves before being allowed to practice in community again? I am not aware of any current regulation which would deal with this type of situation. Certainly they will need three years of community experience before they could operate as a supervising pharmacist but nothing about operating as a regular joe soap pharmacist. Has Ambrose made any approaches to government to change or produce new regulations? Not that I have heard of.

As for the current batch of pharmacy students. What advice do I have for them? Seek out a career in the manufacturing sector or prepare for emigration. And as for those sitting the leaving cert this year. If you decide that you really want to be a community pharmacist then do it for the love of pharmacy. Because there will be shag all money in it.

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