Finding The Right Prescription
In stiff competition with the private sector for pharmacy faculty, academia often finds itself on the losing side
By Tracie Powell
An aging population, the changing role of pharmacists as health systems rely more heavily on newer, sophisticated drug therapies to cure ills, and a proliferation of corner drug stores is driving a growing demand for pharmacists in this country, a challenge the higher education sector is having a tough time meeting.
There are more students applying to pharmacy schools than available slots; but even as a record number of pharmacy schools are being built, deans are having problems finding people to teach in them. Academia is in stiff competition with the private sector, but often lands on the losing side, as schools can’t compete when it comes to compensation.
Three years ago there were four students trying to enroll for every one seat at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Houston. Now, there are nine students for every one seat in a class, according to the school’s dean, Dr. Sunny E. Ohia.
“We’re not having problems attracting students into the colleges, if anything we have problems keeping them away,” Ohia says. “The shortage is largely due to the fact that with the aging generation, we have a lot more prescriptions to fill. The number of prescriptions that are to be filled has been doubling since the early to mid-1990s. If you look at it from that perspective, you see that we almost have to double the number of pharmacists each college trains.”
An even bigger problem for Ohia, and other pharmacy deans, is filling faculty vacancies, he says. The school currently has nine vacancies it can’t seem to fill. Historically Black Xavier University of Louisiana’s pharmacy school also has more students interested in getting into its classes than it has seats. But unlike the University of Houston and others, Xavier has no faculty vacancies and competition with the private sector is almost nonexistent.
“That may have to do with Xavier’s reputation,” says Cathy Jones, the admissions counselor with the pharmacy school. “We graduate the largest number of African American students. Our program is well-known.” Twenty-five percent of the nation’s African American pharmacists graduate from Xavier. They practice in careers that range from working for billion-dollar corporations to serving in clinics and hospitals in inner-city, rural and underserved communities.
Xavier’s premed program is consistently ranked top 10 in the country and its graduates usually have their pick of medical schools. Xavier’s pharmacy school is also ranked in the top tier.
Another historically Black university also turns out its share of pharmacists. The Florida A&M University College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences is now the third largest of all the pharmacy schools in the nation. It has produced over 1,800 pharmacists and 20 percent of the African American pharmacists in the United States, as well as producing over 60 percent of the African American Ph.D. recipients in the pharmaceutical sciences.
While Xavier University graduates work all over the country, Jones says many choose to work in retail drugstores like Walgreen’s and CVS because of the higher pay.
However, LeShahn Layton passed up the retail pharmacies for a hospital experience. Layton, among the first students to graduate from Hampton University’s then-newly accredited School of Pharmacy in 2002, was being heavily recruited by hospitals, Eckerd Drugs, Wal-Mart and CVS pharmacies. The drug stores offered signing bonuses and high pay, but she turned them down to do a one-year residency at a hospital instead.
Layton settled on Children’s Hospital of Atlanta where she now works full-time as a clinical pharmacist, answering drug questions, adjusting dosages and recommending drug therapy for patients. She earns between $70,000 to $80,000 a year. Layton, who always enjoyed studying science, says she first realized she wanted to be a pharmacist after completing a high school mini-internship program at Wal-Mart.
“I’ve never liked blood or needles, I don’t do well with those,” Layton says. “But I’ve always liked health, science and the human body. Becoming a pharmacist was the best way for me to work with the human body without all that gory stuff.” She says the job is rewarding in more ways than just the pay. “You have more say in a patient’s therapy, you really get to help people and have an impact on their health.”
Filling the Void
In a 2003 survey of vacant, budgeted and lost faculty positions, conducted by Dr. Bonnie Svarstad and Dr. Jeanine Mount of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy; Dr. JoLaine Draugalis of the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy; and Dr. Susan Meyer, senior vice president of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), 65 schools of pharmacy reported 354 vacancies. Over half the faculty positions had been vacant because there were not enough eligible candidates to fill the positions.
In 2003, there were 7,488 first professional pharmacy degrees issued at 83 of the nation’s 89 pharmacy schools — a decrease of 1.2 percent over the past academic year, according to the AACP. And there is currently a shortfall of 157,000 pharmacists predicted by 2020, states a report issued by the AACP, which recruits students to meet the growing demand. The association reports that California, Wisconsin, Maine and Missouri have the highest shortage of pharmacists.
The shortages are occurring in pocket areas in many rural communities, according to Mitchel Rothholz, vice president of professional practice for the American Pharmacists Association, based in Washington, D.C.
Recent graduates don’t necessarily want to work in rural areas. But Rothholz says there’s legislation pending before Congress to offer incentives for students to work among rural populations. The changing role of pharmacists is yet another shift that is contributing to shortages in certain areas, he adds. In addition to corner drugs stores, today’s graduates work in industry, they act as consultants to nursing homes, work in hospice/home health care, nuclear and clinical pharmacy.
“It’s no longer the traditional type practices that are available to today’s pharmacists,” Rothholz says. “Historically, it used to be they’d either go into a community pharmacy practice or a hospital practice. But now, because health care has advanced in so many different areas, the role of pharmacists has advanced with it. Therefore, there are more different types of job opportunities available for pharmacists to fill.”
While many college graduates are struggling to find a job in today’s tough economy, pharmacy graduates are enjoying large salaries, signing bonuses, stock options and relocation allowances. The continuing pharmacist shortage has chain and independent pharmacies, hospitals and other practice settings consistently upping the ante to recruit pharmacists. Average starting salaries for entry-level pharmacists can range from $90,000 to six figures annually.
In exchange for such perks, students typically need six years of college education to become pharmacists, not necessarily in chemistry, Meyer says. “There are many different routes to becoming a faculty member or a practicing pharmacist,” she says. “Some have degrees, some do not. Some come through chemistry, others come from the social sciences or economics.”
While more attractive compensation packages and other efforts have been successful in attracting women and minorities into the field, more work needs to be done, Meyer and Ohia acknowledge.
A Look at Disparities
The percentage of women pharmacy faculty has increased from 30 percent of all pharmacy faculty in 1985, to 55 percent in 2002. Yet only 41 percent of tenured faculty in 2002 were women, and pay and advancement disparities persist, Meyer says. Four issues impede the progress of women, according to a study published by the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education: family roles and mobility; work values and activities; gender-related beliefs and biases; lack of support, and marginalization within their departments.
For the 2002-2003 academic year at public and private colleges and universities, women assistant professors in pharmacy earned an average of 7.6 percent less than their male counterparts; an average of 6.4 percent less than their counterparts at the associate professor level; and an average of 11.2 percent less than male full professors.
And although steady increases have been seen, minorities are still underrepresented in pharmacy as is true with all health professions. In 2000, for which the most current data is available, African American graduates of pharmacy programs totaled 7.9 percent and 21.3 percent for Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, while Latino/Hispanic graduates comprised only 2.7 percent.
Pharmacy schools are doing a better job at attracting minority students than medical schools, Ohia says, but they still don’t reflect demographics of the population. Ohia is one of a few Blacks to head schools of pharmacy in the nation.
It’s not that students of color aren’t interested in pharmacy, he says, it’s that more outreach needs to be done to minorities at a younger age. Pharmacists also have an image problem, he adds.
“The image of a pharmacist is that of someone standing behind a counter counting pills,” says Ohia, who is Nigerian. “The pharmacists we’re training now do a lot more than what the public sees. They are analyzing drug therapies, taking into account the whole patient as far as drugs are concerned and they are involved in prevention of diseases. The role is evolving.”
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