Are too many pharmacy graduates diminishing the profession?

pharmacy graduates - empty chairs in a lecture theatre

Australia is producing too many pharmacy graduates, thus diminishing the profession, writes NAPSA past president Xavier Agostino…

In 1997 there were six universities nationwide, each offering a pharmacy program.

Since that time we have witnessed an explosion in the number of pharmacy schools and courses in this country. Currently we have 18 universities offering a total of 25 pharmacy programs.

This dramatic rise poses many questions, some of which include: are we producing too many pharmacy graduates? Are these programs sustainable? Are these programs producing quality or just quantity?

But the big question for me is this: is this rise compromising the image of the pharmacy profession? And for me, the answer is yes.

A few years ago, top high school graduates wanting to enter the health industry had a tough decision to make and asked themselves: do I want to study medicine, pharmacy or dentistry? The entry scores for these courses were almost on par.

These courses all had a particular “glow” about them. High school graduates knew only the best of the best would be granted entry.

However one thing is certain, now: pharmacy schools are no longer attracting the upper echelon of high school graduates.

Pharmacy courses have lost their glow and we are now granting entry to the second and third best.

Furthermore, pharmacy courses are being viewed as stepping stones into medicine and dentistry courses.

Once upon a time only students graduating in the 98th and 99th percentiles had the privilege of considering undertaking a pharmacy degree. Student graduating in the 75th to 80th percentile now have this privilege.

The rise in the number of pharmacy schools and programs has pushed the entry requirements down not just a little bit, but significantly.

Can a high school student graduating in the 75th to 80th percentile offer the same quality professional services to patients as student graduating in the 98th and 99th percentile? I will leave that for you to decide.

It is no secret that universities are a business. A university will not offer or continue to offer a program that is not profitable.

Personally, I am very concerned about the rise of what I see as “exotic” pharmacy programs. These programs include a two-year graduate entry course with a short bridging program and a midyear intake program that will jam the traditional four year program into three and a half years.

The way these programs are advertised makes you think becoming a pharmacist is easy.

These universities will justify these programs by saying they are offering a new, innovative way of learning.

I argue that they are just another way to lure students to a pharmacy program that ensures those university cogs keep turning.

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  1. Will

    As a current student in a 2 year graduate entry program, I can say that there are some probably not suited to give the standard of care that has traditionally defined our profession. This is only a contributing factor though. The changing face of the industry from a service based to a transactionally based paradigm has surely lowered customer expectation, which in turn has affected on-the-ground pharmacy practice.

  2. Jw Park

    I got into Pharmacy in sydney as a 98th percentile student and then had to suspend my studies and try out another course. Recently I finished up my pharmacy degree up in Queensland with all my credits transfered. It was challenging for me to get back into pharmacy and all the biomed, pharmacol, and physiol lectures and they still teach the same stuff. The ATAR goes down if the public isnt that interested in the course but that doesn’t mean the course was easy or every gradutes were stupid.

  3. M

    Wouldn’t anyone not suited to the profession, regardless of how they go into the course, be culled out with the board examination?

    • Guest

      Board examination doesn’t test your commitment or how much you care about the profession. It seems all you need to pass the exam these days is a good memory. Exams are supposed to cull out those that aren’t suitable but they don’t. Graduates can pass the exam quite easily especially after a year’s internship when their memory is still fresh but fail dismally after registration. I do not mean to offend those more experienced pharmacists here who worked hard to get into pharmacy and pass their exams. I respect you for that. The problem is that it is far too easy now to get into course that was once one of the most difficult and that is why it is so hard to find pharmacists who can do the job. It is a sad story for pharmacy.

  4. L

    The demise of pharmacy is not due as you so finely put it due to taking “the second best “it is I believe due to the focus of a business model providing health care . Pushing products to consumers is never going to win people trust and pharmacist services need to be focused on , with service focused payment rather than pharmacists and pharmacies pushing every beauty product that can be bought in any coles or Woolworths . We are the demise of our on health profession and the guild is the biggest culprit .

  5. M

    With the over abundance of graduates entering into a tightly regulated industry – the only ones who benefit are the universities and the pharmacy owners (and therefore the Guild) who can lower the wages offered to a pharmacist employee and watch as we all cut each other’s throats for a measly paid job!

    As an employee pharmacist who has been in the industry for 23 years it saddens me to see our profession turning on itself. However, if degregulation were to occur – employee pharmacists (which now grossly outweigh employer pharmacists) would have far more employment opportunities, potentially higher pay rates and more flexible working hours.

    • Gen

      It’s interesting. A very old wise (& successful) pharmacist told me 20 years ago that pharmacies would end up in supermarkets, but that the push would come from within the profession itself. Looks like we might be getting close to that point. I think the explosion of drug/medical information available to the public on the Internet has devalued the profession. 15-20 years ago the pharmacist was the first port of call for free medical advice with no appointment. The public now look to Dr Google rather than their local pharmacy. But the increased number of graduates has kept wages low. I am one of who kept up the family tradition but will be discouraging my children from doing the same.

  6. B

    I have been a pharmacist now for over 20 years. Some of it good and some not. I was not a high school graduate in the top 99th percentile. Indeed far from it. I started at uni in a BSc and worked hard to get into pharmacy because it was what I wanted to do. Now I have a PhD. So high school results don’t always mean much.

    What we should be doing is asking potential pharmacy students what they want out of the profession before letting them enrol. If it is a stepping stone to medicine that is not all that bad. There are now many medicos and specialists who were once pharmacists and they are still great champions of pharmacy. We should see this as an opportunity rather than a competition.

    We should also find out if potential pharmacists actually care about people before we accept them into a course. Caring about our patients is what once defined us as a profession. However the public perception of us is slipping due to the pharmacy money wars that constantly dog us in the media. I can remember a time when the negative media messages were mostly about doctors and never about pharmacists!!

    What concerns me more is not the number of graduates but the huge change that occurs after they graduate. New graduates are full of plans, knowledge and skills that are beaten out of them during internship and in their early careers so they regress to the mean. What a waste of talent.

  7. Ms H

    People are only realising this now? It’s been a problem for the last 5 years.
    One of the podiatry courses closed down in Vic and now Podiatrists are in demand……obviously the converse is true for Pharmacists… more schools and not only does the demand for Pharmacists decrease; but so does the quality of the professionals coming out. What you’ve written is spot on Megan/Xavier……but I wouldn’t sugar coat it….. Some of the graduates I’ve encountered have been appalling! And if employers are only willing to pay between $23-$26/hr, it only exacerbates the problem.
    Sometimes children want to follow in their parents’ footsteps in terms of career? It used to be the case with a lot of Pharmacists; but I’ve already nipped that in the bud and have told my 10yo not to even bother!!

    • Megan Haggan

      Thanks, Ms H. Full credit for this piece goes to Xavier, though!

    • Y Zhang

      Totally agree with Xavier and you on this subject. To me it seems like all those universities and Pharmacy Guild are more concerned about how much money they make out of pharmacy than the sustainability of our profession! I feel so sad that every time when parents or students ask me about how really pharmacy is, and I had to tell them the ‘truth’ and (just like you)don’t bother with being a pharmacist, because not only do you get paid less in money these, but much more important, less respect in general. (because someone always wants to know if you can price-match CWH, don’t worry about the service!)

  8. Sascha Polles

    The level of naiveté displayed by the author of this article
    and some of the respondents is bewildering. Firstly, entrance scores are not an
    indicator of professionalism. The ability of eighteen year olds to memorise a
    few notions in high school in 4-5 subjects doesn’t distinguish those with perspicacity,
    empathy and reasoning skills from those without. Regardless of the entrance scores required, I
    would also argue that becoming a pharmacist was never considered the “same” as
    entering dentistry or medicine…let’s not kid ourselves.

    With regards to the comments made by M, do you really think
    that a pharmacist working in a Coles or Woolies wouldn’t be treated in much the
    same way as their “commercial transaction consultants”? Don’t you think that
    the lobbying power and the enterprise agreements wielded by the two biggest
    retail corporations in Australia would push wages wherever Coles and Woolworth’s
    want them to go? Do you think it would be easier to negotiate terms with a
    pharmacist owner of a independently owned pharmacy with their livelihood on the
    line or with the HR department of a
    multi-billion dollar company? As an
    experiment I’d encourage you to ask the butcher at the Coles deli counter or even a store manager at your local Woolworths,
    how much freedom they have in performing their duties, then ask a pharmacist in
    any Australian pharmacy how they rate their level of professional freedom and
    compare answers. I’ve spoken to pharmacists working for corporate pharmacies in
    the United States and Britain maybe you should too. I have been advertising several full time positions
    for pharmacists in my independently run ,rural and city pharmacies in Tasmania with
    remuneration between $70,000.00 for inexperienced and $110,000.00 for manager
    level pharmacists with barely any applicants (10 unsuitable applicants). Where
    are all these pharmacists you’re all blithering on about? If the majority of
    graduates want to live in Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane, wages will be
    pushed lower and there will be more competition for jobs in those places. Expand your horizons, and think before biting
    the hand that is feeding many people and their families in the pharmacy
    industry. Pharmacy owners (including the owners of Chemist Warehouse
    pharmacies) are professionals with mortgages, responsibilities and kids to put
    through school who have taken big financial risks and are gainfully employing
    many Australians.

    • Y Zhang

      Yes owners of Chemist Warehouse pharmacies do have families, but you do realise that Sascha, CWH is still a ‘family business’. don’t tell me you don’t know that the proprietor of a CWh is only a junior boss and only own roughly 30% and the majority of profits to ‘The Family (and their so many cousins/nephews)’ that owns the CWH chain. Yes they pay horribly but still pharmacists who are less confident or have whatever other reasons would still work for them.
      And they did destroy MANY other independent pharmacy owners who have equal responsibilities, kids, mortgages etc. You name it. So trying to justify CWH just because they provide jobs? I don’t think so! Because the pharmacy profession was doing so much better without them.

  9. k

    Thanks God. Finally someone realised the problem in our industry. Pharmacy graduates from the University of New England, UTS and University of Canberra would never be as good as the pharmacy graduates from University of Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland and Adelaide. Why? All these new pharmacy schools are lacking good and experienced lecturers and researchers. The pharmacy course at the university of New England is a joke of 21st century as the pharmacy students are only required to attend the uni for only a few weeks in a years. Hence, I wouldn’t risk my pharmacy business and the safety of local community by hiring any graduates from these new pharmacy schools.

    • L.L

      I was a Research Scientist for 10 years and while I was at top level a Research Fellow I fell pregnant and moved back to my family for support. I was a 99 percentile and in 1997 I did pharmacy for a year at UQ but only in my 20’s I wasn’t ready for it so I did a PhD. Now that my kids are 4 and 6 I want to return to work, but because of the high competition for grants and still being a mum I decided if I could return to pharmacy. Guess what? The University of New England gave me that opportunity. They are well ahead of their time and by the way are winning awards everywhere. I have researched and lectured at many universities and I can tell you that the level of the professionalism is as high quality or higher than UQ. The lecturers are incredible, energetic and mostly better than others that I’ve seen as colleagues during my own scientific career.
      You are way off the mark, you have no idea what you are talking about. Why would you say such a thing when you obviously do not have any evidence. You really need to think about taking those statement back.
      Oh and by the way maybe universities are not graduating too many pharmacists (which is a privilege to handle medication) maybe you people should be looking at TAFE and the high school drop outs that handle medication every day and not only that are taking the pharmacist jobs. I say stop TAFE producing so many dispensing techs so pharmacists will get their jobs back.
      If you think you are so smart you would have not gone into attacking new uni programs of the highest level, you would have thought about who are taking our jobs. These people can leave in year 10 and do everything a pharmacist does, this is a seriously wrong scenario and I will be taking this further. So thank you for your rant you are going in the wrong direction!

  10. Muhammed Ozgur

    Some of you seem to have the notion that the author is being elitist. This is far from the truth. Obviously a high ATAR is not an indicator of how good a pharmacist will be, but it should at least be a hurdle. There should be more difficult examinations with a higher expectation than merely passing 32 subjects. Remember you only need to know half of the taught content to be awarded a Bachelor of Pharmacy and honestly there is little incentive to put any more effort than a pass mark unless you want to get into dentistry or medicine. We want to keep the best of our profession and not lose our smartest 5-10% every year.

    It is naive to believe there will not be a difference between a student who had the work ethic to acheive well academically and one who didn’t. Why take the risk?

    Perception is also an issue. Would you listen to your doctor’s recommendations if you knew he wasn’t more academically (as arbitrary as we may believe it is) successful than yourself? That is the issue we as pharmacists face in the future.

  11. Asher

    High ATAR does not correlate to in intelligent person nor a more qualified pharmacist. I can speak with experience having received an extremely high ATAR and having the pleasure of working with many, many pharmacists who are far more qualified and effective at their job than me. There might be something wrong with pharmacy at the moment but it sure isn’t the ATAR scores of those entering courses. A ridiculous article, that literally applies none of the logic required to undertake a pharmacy degree and career. Proof that a high ATAR does not correspond to high intelligence.

  12. Disgusted

    Well said Xavier, & Ms H. I would not encourage my worst enemy to go into Pharmacy.
    It is the most poorly paid of all Health professions. My sister, who is a sonographer, cannot believe
    how low my pay is.

  13. D

    I’d be more focus on the board exams. I personally thought both the written and oral were easy to pass. Even if you failed you could eventually “luck” a pass. Based on looking at past exams the standard seems to be going down. Hard board exams will filter bad students and bad unis that pass under prepared students. Not a personal attack but i believe xavier is a recent graduate of one of the newer pharmacy unis.

  14. A

    When I applied years ago, me along with other students had to go through an interview process which I believe is a great idea. Unfortunately they no longer have this as a screening process. It involved questions to determine whether you genuinely wanted to become a pharmacist and had a passion for it. This meant you could get students will lower traditional ATAR scores entering the course but their passion for it drives them to succeed —and vice versa, those with high ATAR scores with no passion were not offered the position. Yes, I know that there will be students who will just give the answer that the interviewer wants but it makes it just that one step more difficult for them (hopefully the interviewer will be able to pick it up as well).

    I must remind everyone that a lower than usual ATAR score does not equate to a bad pharmacist. If a low ATAR score is due to lack of study and motivation, it will show later – because as we all know, you can not pass your bachelor’s degree without passing the uni exams — which means you can not qualify as a pharmacist therefore it should not be much of an issue.

    When I was accepted into my pharmacy course, I was one of those students with a traditionally lower ATAR (ENTER at the time) than usual (it was by far not as low as what students are getting accepted with now though). I went through the interview, got accepted and went to university. I passed all my exams with fairly high marks because I was genuinely interested in all my subjects. Then I went to do my internship at a wonderful pharmacy with a fantastic preceptor who had a big passion for pharmacy, kind but tough at the same time. I did my board exam and passed with no problem. I’ve been a qualified pharmacist for 3 years now,working at a job that I love with great bosses,staff and lovely customers. I’ve worked for numerous pharmacies and locumed quite often (and to this day) I’ve always received positive feedback for my work, am always asked to come back to work for them and get recommended to other pharmacies. I have customers who tell me what a wonderful job I do for them which makes it even more worthwhile and drives my passion further.

    While I do think that there should be a limit to how low of an ATAR score you get to be accepted into a pharmacy course, it is not what determines the quality of a pharmacist/student. Do I think there are too many students? Are there too many pharmacy schools? YES,no question about it. I think the issue is that there are way too many pharmacy schools for our profession to handle the number of students coming out and that these schools are increasing the amount of students accepted into each one. There needs to be a cap on how many students are accepted, we need to reduce the number of pharmacy schools available in one given state, AND reintroduce screening processes to kick off the students who are doing pharmacy for the wrong reasons and give a chance to those who deserve it. This way pharmacy will hopefully be filled with those who are determined in upholding what it truly means to be a pharmacist and demonstrates it everyday — and eliminate those who are purely money hungry and couldn’t care less about the people walking through their doors expecting help and advice.

  15. Shane

    I have met Xavier (although he probably doesn’t remember me) and I can understand his frustration. Pharmacy board exams should be made more difficult and university courses in pharmacy should be of the highest standard. Now this does not necessarily mean that students with lower ranking high school scores are extremely below others that have a 98 to 99 percentile scores. I went to uni with someone with an 80 percentile score, she even had to upgrade via health science to get into the pharmacy program. However, she’s currently in her third year of a PhD after a lot of hard work topping courses. The better thing to look at with the extended work force is not whether we’re prestigious anymore, it’s what we will try for in the future. Pharmacy has never before had this many practising individuals, and that’s probably why we’ve had so few roles in healthcare. Nurses are more versatile than pharmacists because they’ve lobbied hard for more roles to suit their larger workforce. Now is the time for pharmacy to diversify and take on new challenges.

  16. David Williams

    After 25 years in pharmacy I get $30-$35/hour. My son gets up to $28 at the Coles Deli.
    Pharmacy is not in a good position at the moment! CWH, gov’t cutbacks and oversupply of p’cists have all contributed to the demise of pharmacy. Have to find another profession.

  17. Jane

    I had some dudes around to hook up my aerial for my extraordinarily complicated TV etc, 2 of them, both on $120 per hour! Seriously, why did I bother going to Uni? All my friends at school who married tradies and never worked are retired! The jokes on us guys!

  18. Srikant

    I agree there are many pharmacy graduates but the problem is non of them want to work in rural areas and we are always in need of pharmacist here. We need more graduates to pass their pharmacy exams so at least few ( less than 0.1%) will come to rural areas. I urge The author to come to rural towns and see the scarcity of pharmacists here.

  19. Michael

    I think pharmacy owners, specialy CWH owners and represented by the pharmacy guild, don’t care about the profession or pharmacists. The only thing they care about is to make money, but when it comes to pharmacy, people’s health should come first then the profession and money comes last. CWH has insulted the profession and pharmacists and, even patients by offering them poor service. Many pharmacists there work under great pressure dispensing hundreds of scripts ,offering advice and answering inquiries by themselves with no help from assistants or technicians , who are busy working in the shop. pharmacists Sometimes don’t have the chance to counsel patients because they are very busy. Can you tell me why pharmacy owners do nothing aboutthe government cut downs? , because they are always under threat that the law changes and big companies get the right to own pharmacies.
    While the pharmacy guild main job is to secure pharmacy Owners ,poor pharmacists have no body to support them. The solution for the current situation is to give the big companies the opportunity to own pharmacies and develop strong bodies to stand for pharmacists and the profession and stop those owners and the pharmacy guild from representing pharmacists, this is the situation with doctors where everybody cares about the doctor who serve patients not about the owner of the medical center and his wealth.

  20. aaabbbccc

    The fact of the matter is that there are really too many
    pharmacists for the number of jobs available. Under-employment is rife. But it
    is the same story now with the physiotherapist, teachers, and the sonographers.
    There is also an oversupply of anaesthetists. The universities are graduating
    three times more dentists than are needed to cover the profession’s attrition
    rates. It is really becoming a back-door type of Leninist-Marxist approach to
    wage equality, where your professional and worker earn the same pay.

    Ten years ago there was an acute shortage of pharmacists.
    The local CWH-type, internet discounter was offering $100k per annum and
    immediate start to any pharmacist, experienced or not. A modest increase in
    pharmacist numbers was warranted. There was an acute shortage of rural
    pharmacists. What they should have done was position newly graduated
    pharmacists in rural areas for the first three years of their career just as
    the Education Departments, Australia-wide, do with new teaching graduates.

    When Terry White’s advertised some time ago for a manager at
    a popular coastal area, they received 200+ applications. That didn’t include
    overseas applicant and visa applicants. If you didn’t make the cut-off, don’t
    be disappointed. It was a matter of anything after the first twenty received
    went unread. I talk to recruitment agencies. I ask them how many pharmacists
    they have on their books wanting employment. Their answer is 250+. I then ask
    the agencies how many positions they have “open” at that time. They answer
    none. I talk to the owners of the large banner group pharmacies. They tell me
    that the quality of new candidates has fallen off in recent times. These
    applicants seem to lack awareness. Yes, they have the pencils, rulers, and
    papers neat and tidy in the dispensary. However, they can’t see what is not working
    in the shop. And, worse still, they have no idea how to fix the problem.

    What you have to realise is that, it doesn’t matter how high
    your hourly wage rates are, if you can only find part-time work in pharmacy, over
    the course of a year, you are actually only marginally better off than someone
    on a full time, unskilled labourer’s wage. It suits the government and pharmacy
    owners to keep wages low, so if you are expecting the good fairy to suddenly
    raise your wages by anything more than a miserable pittance of a few cents, you
    are going to be greatly disappointed. Because of conditions in the industry,
    you can expect real wages growth in pharmacy to actually go backwards, unless
    you are in the unlikely, but enviable position of being able to leverage in job

    The award wage rate for a brand-new, shiny, just-off-the-assembly-line
    pharmacist, low mileage, only been used for dispensing on Sundays by little,
    old ladies, is about $26-$27 per hour. Aldi Supermarkets around the corner from
    my residence was advertising for a checkout operator, $24 per hour. A first
    year nurse at the nearby, major hospital will receive a pay rate of about
    $33-$37 an hour. First year dentists will receive a pay rate of about $70 per
    hour. CWH pays experienced pharmacists about $28 per hour. The kings of the
    health professionals are the pathologists and the gastroenterologists, who earn
    $1.5M+ annually. The worst paid of the medical specialists are the dermatologists
    who struggle to get by on almost $400k per annum. Feeling all your work and
    study is unappreciated? Those folks who left pharmacy in the first year of your
    pharmacy course for other university courses are now earning twice your income
    and have weekends free for a normal life. There are high-rise, office cleaners on
    higher wages than an experienced pharmacist. Your wages are very “middle of the
    road” when compared to office workers with the same number of years of work
    experience but no tertiary qualifications. Although that is not strictly
    correct, because there is a b/s, tertiary course for almost everything now as
    universities become more like business diploma mills.

    You see the profession is in danger of becoming an unwanted
    and disposable non-entity. In retail, nobody needs your clinical knowledge. A
    dispensing computer program guides inexperienced operators and throws up
    dispensing warning. When customers ask you about a certain drug, half of them have
    already looked for the answer on Dr. Google. They are simply asking you to
    confirm what they have already read. This eliminates the confusion. Handing the
    customer a CMI printout covers anything the pharmacy staff member can’t answer
    off the top of their heads. Nobody needs your business or marketing skills or
    experience because all the banner groups have head offices staffed by people
    with marketing and business degrees to do the business drill for you. What the
    retail pharmacy owners are really interested is your data entry speed. That is
    how fast you can handle the programs. The only tests I have had at any job
    interview was to demonstrate how fast I could type. Basically, the retail
    pharmacist is fast becoming a glorified clerk-typist.

    You only have yourselves to blame. Somebody twisted your arm
    and told you to advertise discounted medicines??? Discounting and advertising
    are two distinctly, different things. The decision was not handled well by our
    pharmacy forefathers. Have you seen your local dentist recently advertising … “Second
    tooth pulled for half price”? The profession only has itself to blame. If you
    want to know the future, go onto the USA pharmacy student / pharmacist blogs,
    and look at pharmacy trends of the future. They are about five to ten years
    ahead of us and they are all saying the same thing. That is, “Retail is stuffed
    and don’t give up your clinical”.

  21. A

    I must agree that there are way too many graduates and from my personal experience, the aptitude levels of the graduates have declined as well. This year I had a graduate and wonder how they graduated. The level of knowledge that you would expect from a graduate 10 years ago to now has diminished greatly. I’m not sure if this is solely due to the lower ATARs or if the current university pharmacy programs have great flaws. It appears my graduate has gone through the 4 years of pharmacy just parroting and regurgitating terms that they’ve learnt in the lectures without actually understanding what they mean. If I could give an example, if an exam question was to ask for symptoms of rhinitis they could list all the symptoms, but what the exam fails to pick up is that this student actually doesn’t understand what rhinitis is. They have rote learnt all the sections and can pull out technical jargon in an exam but as clinicians, they have questionable capabilities. I have had many graduates over the past 20 years and have been a marker for the PGTC during the initial program. I can honestly say that the graduates that I have had in recent years has shown a disappointingly declining trend.

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