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Why Are Pharmacists Disappearing?

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When the doctor's away, and you need help on anything from treating a bee sting to information on a drug interaction, who ya gonna call?

Why a pharmacist, of course. They're members of one of our nation's most trusted professions -- but they're in increasingly short supply. And that could have far-ranging implications for the quality of American health care.

As of last January, about 5,500 pharmacist jobs at retail drug stores were unfilled. A May survey found a 5.6 percent vacancy rate -- or about 2,800 vacant positions -- in hospital pharmacies.

All this comes as every working pharmacist copes with an average increase of 5,000 prescriptions per year. The number of prescriptions filled is expected to reach 4 billion by 2006.

Training Brain Drain

The problem is compounded by a brain drain at the nation's 84 pharmaceutical colleges. Thanks to retirements and competition from higher-paying private industry, there are just not enough teachers to go around.

Sixty-seven of those schools had an average of six vacant faculty jobs each, the majority in the areas of pharmacy practice and pharmaceutical science. More than 94 percent of the vacancies are full-time teaching positions.

But the industry is trying to rise to the challenge. The American Foundation for Pharmaceutical Education is launching a $12 million fund-raising campaign to fund a scholarship program. The goal is to provide 155 scholarships and grants to students interested in a career teaching the next generation of drug dispensers.

At the same time, Congress is trying to address the shortage of pharmacists. The Pharmacy Education Act of 2003, now pending, would allow for student loan repayment programs of up to $35,000 a year for would-be pharmaceutical professors, or those who are willing to work for two years in underserved areas of the country.

If the problem is not fixed, experts say the shortage could harm the quality of health care for the U.S. population, a population that's rapidly aging, and increasingly dependent on prescription drugs to treat a wide variety of ailments.

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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