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Reports of pharmacist oversupply greatly exaggerated

In 2013 the Centre for Workforce Intelligence, looking at pharmacy student intakes, forecast an oversupply of between 11,000 and 19,000 pharmacists by 2040. That looks wildly out of date today, when demand for pharmacists seems to be outstripping supply, says former RPSGB chief Jeremy Holmes

Over 88 per cent of candidates passed the GPhC’s first online registration assessment in March — the highest pass rate since 2016. While it was hailed as a great achievement by both the GPhC and the RPS, there are still concerns that demand for pharmacists is not being met.

More pharmacists are working part time and taking career breaks, and there is also wide variation in the supply/demand balance by region and in urban versus rural locations.

Boots chief pharmacist Marc Donovan says there are increasing service demands on the workforce everywhere. Certainly, the likelihood of further pandemics, as well as the expanding clinical role of pharmacists, is going to continue fuelling demand for more pharmacists.

The British Pharmaceutical Students’ Association has been highly critical of the way the GPhC handled the online registration assessment, but it has no worries about new pharmacists finding jobs. However, some, including AIMp, believe the rise of primary care networks in England is taking pharmacists out of community pharmacy – a situation that isn’t being offset yet by the numbers in the pharmacist pipeline.

In March the Government reinstated pharmacists on the Shortage Occupation List, making it easier for overseas pharmacists to apply for a skilled worker visa and further increase the size of the workforce. One criterion for inclusion on that list is the public value of the occupation.

In making the change, the Migration Advisory Committee said, “pharmacists have played an important role in addressing the ongoing challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic”. They also considered pharmacy to be a “high risk” occupation in the current environment.

Student growth

Further up the pipeline, UCAS has reported an 8 per cent rise in applications to do the MPharm – a reflection of the growing respect for pharmacy as a profession, says BPSA president Sean Brannen.

When the Centre for Workforce Intelligence looked at pharmacy student intakes back in 2013, it forecast an oversupply by the year 2040 of between 11,000 and 19,000 pharmacists. The PDA even mounted a campaign to try and cap the number of pharmacy students. That forecast looks wildly out of date today, when demand for pharmacists seems to be outstripping supply. 

In fact, new schools of pharmacy have continued to open – at Lincoln in 2014 and Sussex in 2016 (although the Sussex school has now closed). Professor Andrew Morris is the new head of pharmacy at Swansea University (where it is part of the medical school), which will open its doors to its first pharmacy students in October.

Professor Morris says Covid has sent an important signal about the value of the pharmacy workforce – which is now more recognised by both politicians and the public. On the back of a £2.1m investment in state-of-the-art facilities, he is keen to innovate by integrating AI with more established pharmacy skills and doesn’t see a threat of de-skilling through technology. 

Marc Donovan agrees, saying new technology will release much needed capacity for community pharmacists to spend more time with patients. He says Covid has been an “accelerant” of change in the sector but pharmacy will have to continue to adapt post-Covid. 

Coming out of the tragedy and turmoil of Covid, Swansea’s “new course for the changing face of pharmacy” could be one positive development. As could the new GPhC standards for the initial education and training of pharmacists, which the Pharmacy Schools Council says are a “significant step forward in moving our future pharmacists further towards embracing risk management, leadership skills and evidence-based decision making”.

It looks like pharmacists are going to need all those skills over the next few years and beyond.

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