Pharmacy student numbers - a problem solved?

Over the past few months I’ve attended a number of pharmacy and healthcare conferences, and whilst talking amongst the delegates there was one topic of conversation above all others which consistently surfaced and was the source of many a debate: Pharmacy student numbers. 

It’s been just over a year since Greg Clark, the then government minister for science, universities and cities decided not to cap pharmacy student numbers, in a move which received a cool response from amongst the profession. This decision flew in the face of the extensive campaigns by the RPS, and came following an analysis by the Centre for Workforce Intelligence, in which they predicted an oversupply of pharmacists of up to 19,000 by 2040.

The announcement signalled a number of panicked responses in the pharmacy media and across the twitterverse. The doom and gloom analysis of the profession will be familiar to many of us, yet a year has passed since the decision was reached, and a number of important developments have been made, which are worth noting. 

Health Education England states it is working with the Department of Health in introducing a five-year degree with an integrated work placement as the norm; a model which has been used successfully for some time by the University of Bradford. This would require the student intake to be matched against the number of available pre-registration pharmacy work placements, ensuring an oversupply of pharmacists could not occur.

At the same time, the previous year has seen a great deal of change in terms of the diversification of the pharmacy workforce. Pharmacists used to primarily working in either hospital or community sectors have found that their patient facing and clinical skills are in great demand, and there has been success in implementing these into new working environments.

The RPS campaigns to get pharmacists into GP surgeries, A&E and nursing homes have been well received, and have featured across the national media this year. All of this is set to increase the demand for pharmacists, as they take on additional roles which were carried out by other stretched healthcare professionals; just as nurses have expanded their portfolio of roles to infiltrate primary care and improve patient outcomes, we are seeing a similar thing occurring with pharmacists.

This vision for pharmacy has been embraced by a number of influential figures, including Sir Kevin Barron, MP and chair of the all-party pharmacy group, who says “It is vitally important that we nurture the role of pharmacy – it’s a win-win for patients, the wider public, the NHS and the taxpayer”. Mirroring this view is DR Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of the Health Select Committee, who speaking of pharmacist’s described them as “an under-utilised resource” and stating that “patients could benefit enormously from the expertise of their local pharmacists”.

Once you factor in the increased strain which GP’s are currently under, and the ‘silver tsunami’ of an ageing population with more long term conditions than ever before, it becomes possible to imagine a future where pharmacists are in consistently high demand.

Pharmacists are already placed in the hearts of local communities, and easily accessible on every high street, this puts them in the perfect position to take a leading role in the provision of primary care. Could the student crisis have been inadvertently avoided by the increasing demand for pharmacists? With increasing opportunities on the horizon it’s entirely possible that the best years of pharmacy are indeed yet to come. 

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