If you're demanding quicker service at your local pharmacy, it may be time to learn how to be more patient. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says there just aren't enough pharmacists to go around. A federal study shows that last year, the number of unfilled pharmacist openings reached almost 7,000 nationwide, more than double the vacancies in 1998. 90.3's Renita Jablonski looks at how pharmacists in northeast Ohio are coping -- and what it means for consumers.
Renita Jablonski- Pharmacies are distributing more medications than ever, and that means pharmacists are busier than ever.
Joann Kazar- The therapy that is on the market today wasn't there five years ago. It's better therapy, it keeps you out of the hospital. All these are placing undue demand on the number of prescriptions we're filling so even if we had a supply of pharmacists with the increasing number of prescriptions we're filling we would still be behind.
RJ- And the problem is, there's no where close to a healthy supply of pharmacists available today. Joann Kazar is Manager of Pharmacy Operations and Quality Initiatives for Kaiser Permanente Ohio. She says the lack of pharmacists is effecting the delivery of quality health care across the U.S. -- and the Cleveland area is not immune.
JK- The shortage is real. We have at the present time, we have five vacant positions in our region, four full-time and one part-time pharmacist position that we're actively recruiting for and some of those positions have been vacant for over a year.
RJ- And the reasons for the dip in pharmacists seem to be just as numerous as the shortage itself. Tom Nameth is Vice President for Pharmacy Operations for Discount Drug Mart. He says more people using more meds tops the list.
Tom Nameth- I think over the last five or six years there's probably been a 40% increase in drug usage, increase in the age population is a part of it. People are living longer, more drugs are coming on the market, they're treating disease states with more medication rather than maybe surgical procedure.
RJ- Expanded health insurance coverage makes for a heavier workload for pharmacists too, not only in the number of prescriptions but also in dealing with third-party payment tasks. On top of all these new demands, the number of pharmacy grads has decreased over the last few years. This is partly because schools are now requiring aspiring pharmacists to complete a Doctor of Pharmacy degree.
TN- You have a lot of students that are not necessarily coming out of school after a five-year program right now, what used to be five years is now gone to six. They have the opportunity to stay in school or come out. Most of them we're finding are staying in school because that's where the level entry is going to be, a Pharm-D degree.
JK- I don't see any short term solution to the shortage here. It's very, very competitive right now in this marketplace for pharmacists. Everyone's vying for the same supply of pharmacists that really are not out there.
RJ- Sue Ayers is Chief Pharmacist for Kaiser's Parma Office. She says it's important to note that the shortage not only effects quality of life issues of patients, but of pharmacists themselves.
Sue Ayers- People can't keep up at this pace. There's a lot of burnout in pharmacy right now because of that too. People having to work extra hours, there's dissatisfaction too because they feel like they have to work extra hours because there's no one there to relieve them.
RJ- Both Kazar and Nameth agree that the shortage will continue for several years before the industry sees any major improvements. They say an increase in technicians and technology needs to be utilized to help remedy the situation. Kazar says automation is already playing a major role in several medical centers in northeast Ohio.
JK- Where the pharmacist counsels the patient up at the front window and the order is sent to this piece of machinery that literally counts the tablets into the bottle, puts a label on it, takes a picture of what's in the bottle, puts a cap on it, sends it down the line to a pharmacist at the end who checks it against a reference standard.
RJ- Nameth says technology could also help speed-up the communication process important in pharmaceutical procedures.
TN- E-scribe or electronic prescribing by physicians through palm pilots and looking at those issues would also help the industry because less call backs to the physician for poor handwriting or dosage checks, non-formulary items for the insurance companies would be eliminated through a process like that.
RJ- Kazar also recommends a good-old fashioned dose of understanding on the part of consumers.
JK- All you guys do back there is take it out of a big bottle and put it in a little one, well in between that big bottle and the little one, there's all kinds of things that go on that the patient's unaware of. We're checking for allergies, we're checking for duplications, we're checking for the right strength, the right dose, that directions are correct, a whole host of things that goes on in between the time the prescription is actually dropped off at the window and the time the patient is called to the cash register.
RJ- Something to keep in mind as you be encounter shorter hours and longer lines at your pharmacy. Renita Jablonski, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.