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9/5/2003

Staffing Shortages Plague Nation's Pharmacy Schools

Kate Traynor

A shortage of faculty at the nation's pharmacy schools has important ramifications for the overall national pharmacist shortage, says Robert Bachman, president of the American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education (AFPE).

"Hundreds of pharmacy college teaching positions are going vacant," Bachman said during a July 29 press conference in Washington, D.C. "This shortage represents a key bottleneck that is thwarting current efforts to enroll more students and graduate more licensed pharmacists."

Lucinda Maine, executive vice president of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), concurred with Bachman.

"It's becoming increasingly obvious that having an adequate number of well-trained pharmacy faculty is requisite to having an adequate number of well-trained, clinical, patient-focused pharmacists," Maine said. She added that existing pharmacy schools "have done as much as they can in an era of highly constrained resources to increase enrollment" by 10–20%, on average, across the country.

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A recent AACP survey revealed that each pharmacy school, on average, had 6.2 vacant faculty positions. According to AACP, 92% of these vacancies represent teaching positions that directly affect the number of pharmacy students a school can enroll.

At the time the survey was conducted, each pharmacy school employed an average of 45.3 full-time and 9.5 part-time pharmacy faculty members, according to information at the AACP Web site.

The 67 pharmacy schools that responded to the survey also reported problems retaining faculty members. According to AACP, 32% of schools reported losing professors to jobs in hospitals or drug companies, 29% said faculty members had taken jobs at other schools of pharmacy, and 20% lost professors to retirement.

Maine said that her organization was surprised to discover through the survey that 30% of the open academic positions had been vacant for at least a year.

"That reflects the difficulty, I think, in finding an adequate number of qualified individuals and preferentially recruiting those people to careers in academic pharmacy," she said. Maine added that "the salary gradient [in] higher education versus the private sector" is one of AACP's greatest concerns.

To address the faculty shortage, AFPE has launched a $12 million campaign to entice pharmacists into pursuing teaching careers. According to AFPE, the organization has already received pledges of $3.5 million from individuals and pharmaceutical companies.

"This campaign, when complete, will allow AFPE to offer 155 scholarships, fellowships, and grants each year," Bachman said. The projected funding breaks down as follows:

  • Thirty $5000, one-year research project scholarships for pharmacy students pursuing a career in academic pharmacy and research,   
  • Ninety-five $25,000, three-year fellowships for Ph.D. candidates at pharmacy schools who are in their final stages of study toward an academic career, and   
  • Thirty $10,000, one-year new investigator grants for new pharmacy faculty members.

These funds, Bachman told press conference attendees, will be available to applicants from accredited public and private pharmacy schools.

AFPE expects to begin awarding funds from the new initiative next year, Bachman said later, emphasizing that the organization has long offered financial support to strengthen pharmaceutical sciences education at pharmacy schools and train pharmaceutical scientists.

Historically, Bachman said, "our award programs have been very successful at giving support to people who end up being faculty members."

AFPE's campaign could eventually be supplemented by legislation that encourages pharmacy students to pursue academic careers. Senator Jack Reed (D–Rhode Island) on March 18 introduced S. 648, the Pharmacy Education Act of 2003, which establishes a loan repayment program for pharmacists who accept a faculty position at an accredited pharmacy school.

At the July 29 press conference, Reed told the audience that "the average pharmacy student graduates with nearly $50,000 in [education]-related expenses. That makes it very difficult for these young people to go into teaching."

Said Reed: "We need to help pharmacy students deal with the cost of education. We also need to help colleges of pharmacy throughout the country to recruit and retain talented faculty members."

As it is currently written, the act authorizes the partial cancellation of loans totaling up to $35,000 per academic year for graduates who become faculty members at an accredited pharmacy school. In all, the government would assume the responsibility for repaying up to 85% of the loan debt incurred by a pharmacist after that person serves four years in a faculty position.

The act similarly authorizes loan repayment for pharmacists who work in areas deemed to have "a critical shortage of pharmacists."

Reed noted that the act would afford to pharmacists the same type of favorable loan treatment that the federal government already offers to members of other health professions who work in underserved areas or embark on academic careers.

When asked about the need for government intervention to ease the pharmacist shortage, Reed said that the current supply-and-demand system, despite creating "lucrative salaries" for pharmacists, is not effective enough to solve the problem.

"The market works in some places, but it doesn't work across the board. It doesn't seem to be working," he said, "when it comes to the staffing, the financing, and the expansion of schools of pharmacy throughout the country."

"This is a classic example of the kind of case where government can enter—and indeed, I suggest, should enter—to ensure that we have appropriately staffed colleges to meet the demand" for pharmacists, Reed said.