Australia could be facing another shortage of pharmacists, with their workforce growth rates on the decline
A growing number of registered pharmacists don’t plan to stay in the profession for more than 10 years, new research has found.
A study led by Monash University’s Project Pharmacist team found that the number of registered, working pharmacists in Australia is growing at a substantially lower rate than the total of all other registered health professions.
A fall in student numbers across the country, as well as changes to immigration policy, have contributed to an ageing of the pharmacist workforce and lower growth rate compared to other health professions.
The researchers say a workforce strategy is urgently needed to prevent a shortage, noting that the last major report on these issues was released in 2014.
Based on analysed data from 2013 to 2018, the study found the percentage of registered pharmacists in the 20-to-34-year-old age cohort decreased every year between 2013 and 2018.
In contrast, the overall health workforce became younger due to an increase in the 20-34 years cohort – making pharmacy the anomaly.
The total registered workforce of the 14 health professions registered with AHPRA from 2013 to 2018 increased by 16.4% to 690,773. Pharmacists comprised 4.7% of this workforce in 2013 and were the fourth-most numerous AHPRA registered profession.
But this percentage declined each year to 4.5% of the health workforce in 2018. Physiotherapists (4.7%) have joined nurses and midwifes (56.7%), medical practitioners (16.5%) and psychologists (5.1%) in outnumbering pharmacists.
Over this time, the registered pharmacist workforce increased by 11.3% to 31,148 whereas the number of registered medical practitioners increased by 20.2% to 114 200.
The study also looked at workforce intentions, and found that every year, around 7% of registered pharmacists indicate they are not working in the profession – and not looking to.
A growing percentage of pharmacists working in the profession indicated that they intend to work for no more than 10 years: 34.6% in 2013 to 38.8% in 2018.
“While younger pharmacists intend to remain working for longer periods than older cohorts, the percentage of 20–34 years pharmacists indicating that they would work for no more than 10 years increased by 44% from 13.1% in 2013 to 18.9% in 2018,” the authors noted.
“The Australian pharmacist workforce fluctuated from severe undersupply in the mid-1990s to perceptions of oversupply in the mid-2010s,” said lead author and Director of Project Pharmacist, John Jackson, from the Centre for Medicine Use and Safety.
“Resolution of the shortage occurred as a consequence of an increase in the number of pharmacy schools, resulting in the exponential rise in the number of graduates.”
In addition to this, the shortage in the 1990s meant that pharmacists were listed on a ‘General Skilled Migration’ visa category up to 2013, which entitled applicants, once registered in Australia, permanent entry and eligibility to become Australian citizens.
This meant overseas students studying pharmacy in Australia contributed strongly to the domestic workforce, however, this pathway is no longer an option.
“So, while there are some obvious explanations behind the fluctuating pharmacy workforce in recent decades, there is still an urgent need to understand other factors associated with inflow and attrition from the pharmacist workforce, along with the factors influencing both supply and demand,” said Mr Jackson.
“The low growth rate and the declining intention of young pharmacists to remain in the profession, are areas of major concern, particularly when medicines safety has recently been declared a national health priority area and there is a need for pharmacists to deliver new consumer-focused quality use of medicines services.”
“While the number of graduates from Australian pharmacy schools grew dramatically between 1997 and 2011 and resolved the last major pharmacist shortage, changes to student numbers, to the composition of the student cohort and to migration policy appear to have resulted in the supply to the domestic workforce falling to the extent pharmacy has an exceptionally low growth rate compared with other professions,” the authors concluded.
“Whether this will result in a new shortage is dependent on changes to demand for pharmacists and without a workforce strategy this interplay cannot be foreseen.
“A range of factors affect workforce participation, and the absence of a workforce strategy with established monitoring process limits the ability to determine causality.”
Read the full study here.