Supermarket NONFOODS Business: Filling in the pharmacist gap

As the nation's grow- ing pharmacy business runs smack dab into the nation's pharmacist shortage, retailers are finding the long-term solution to the shortage is still six years away.

College students and people looking for a new profession have found pharmacy school, and program enrollment is up across the country. The federal government continues its efforts to provide incentives for students to get into the profession more easily.

On Sept. 25, for example, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee passed the Pharmacy Education Aid Act. The bill would allow pharmacists to be eligible for scholarships and loans if they agree to work in underserved areas. Additionally, it creates a new program under the Public Health Service Act to recruit and retain pharmacy students and faculty.

Supermarkets continue to be the primary driver of this surge in pharmacies. According to FMI, there are now more than 8,800 supermarket pharmacies in the United States, which represent nearly 20 percent of the retail pharmacy market. The survey also projects that the number will likely increase as nearly 68 percent of new supermarkets include pharmacy service areas.

According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration in Rockville, Md., there are an estimated 10,000 pharmacist positions open across the country, with 7,000 of the vacancies in drug stores alone.

"I've been in this business for over 20 years—first as a pharmacist and second as a leader in providing pharmacy services. I've never seen the demand quite like this before," says Harry Lattanzio, president of PRS Pharmacy Services in Latrobe, Pa.

Into this breach step companies such as Lattanzio's and Cardinal Health, providing part-time and temporary staffing services for retail and hospital pharmacies. The programs ensure available pharmacists for retailers without the burden of recruiting or filling in staffing gaps.

"The advantage for retailers is that we have a contract with them to provide staffing, so we have a pool of workers to draw from," says Lattanzio. "If they need extra staffing during the holidays or for maternity leave, they don't have to carry excess staff."

The program also provides a break for pharmacy department managers who spend their time filling staff positions rather than prescriptions. "We have seen a lot of district managers spending their time hiring staff rather than running the store," Lattanzio says. "We can take away that burden of recruiting."

For the pharmacists, the advantage is a control over their own schedules and the ability to work set hours from the beginning. Since PRS hires the pharmacists, it, not retailers, sets pharmacist schedules. "The scheduling goes through us. We act as the buffer between the retailer and the pharmacist. The advantage is that they're not under that pressure of having to work extra hours," Lattanzio says.

PRS also manages the staff and provides a benefits package, including medical, dental, and life insurance. That's one more part of the employment puzzle that doesn't have to be carried by the retailer.

Cardinal Health Staffing Network, Dublin, Ohio, has a similar program, offering everything from pharmacy temps to interim directors of pharmacy to scheduling services. The company estimates it fills more than 400,000 hours of temporary staffing each year—the rough equivalent of 200 full-time positions.

But it's just a start in dealing with the pharmacist crisis. "It's nationwide," says Lucinda Maine of the American Pharmaceutical Association about the shortage. "It's across all settings and it appears it will be long-standing. There's no quick remedy."

80-hour weeks

An aging population and the advent of new and better prescription drugs is one factor. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration reports that in 1992, fewer than 2 billion prescriptions were filled. That number is expected to reach 4 billion by 2005.

While full-time pharmacists continue to be in demand by retailers, the long work schedules driven by the shortage have led to fears of pharmacist errors.

For the pharmacists themselves, shortages have kept them working up to 80 hours a week in some locations. That creates less time for family life outside of work—something even the relatively high salaries can't compensate for.

"Right now, salary is less and less of a factor," Lattanzio says. "When you're making $85,000 or $90,000, a couple thousand extra isn't going to make that much of a difference. One of our primary focuses is the quality of life issue. It's an even split between full-time and part-time staffing. Most of the part-timers are women who have families and really want to work just 15 or 20 hours a week. And there aren't too many jobs where you can work those hours and make $40,000 or $50,000 a year."
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