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Pharmacists on the frontline of healthcare

By Lucinda L. Maine, PhD, RPh, AACP Executive Vice President and CEO

PharmacistsDespite issues with affordability and access in the U.S. healthcare system, we trust our healthcare providers. And according to a 2013 Gallup poll, pharmacists – the third largest group of providers, and the most accessible – are the second most trusted healthcare professionals after nurses. Yet, with the invaluable services they provide in our communities, pharmacists are often little understood and may be somewhat underappreciated.

Our nation’s 281,560 pharmacists are on the frontlines of healthcare. They truly are first responders regarding our day-to-day healthcare needs. The average American lives within 5 miles of the nearest community pharmacy. And pharmacists do so much more than just fill prescriptions. They also provide advice on all of our health conditions, from temporary illness to chronic diseases.

America is getting older as Baby Boomers reach age 65 in record numbers daily. This, plus greater demands for services resulting from increased access to insurance coverage, put enormous strain on the availability of healthcare professionals of all types. With the current primary care shortage creating longer wait times (it can take about three weeks for an individual to see a general practitioner), people turn to their community pharmacists for immediate health advice.

PharmacistsWhat does it take to become a pharmacist? Students must complete a minimum of two years of pre-pharmacy coursework and some schools of pharmacy have three or more years of prerequisites. The coursework must include biology, physiology and chemistry. Also, many schools require students to take the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT). PCAT is an admission test that measures academic ability and scientific knowledge. The single entry-level degree to become a licensed pharmacist is a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.). The Pharm.D program takes four years to complete. During pharmacy school, students will study pharmacology, therapeutics, management, and medical ethics. Also, students will work in hospitals, clinics and community pharmacies under the supervision of licensed professionals. After students obtain their Pharm.D degree, they must attain their license to practice. Graduates need to pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX) to gain licensure, and take the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE) for most states.

PharmacistsWhat are the career prospects for pharmacists? Pharmacists have one of the highest average salaries of any of healthcare field. The median annual salary for a pharmacist was $116,670 in 2012. The best-paid 10 percent of pharmacists made $145,910 in 2012, while the lowest paid made $89,280. Excellent career opportunities are also available in the pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing industry. Pharmacists make $34,000 more than average physical therapist and $47,000 more than registered nurses. As far as other healthcare fields, only dentists and physicians earn more, taking home $163,240 and $191,520 respectively.

There are still good opportunities for those who do not want to pursue the Pharmacy technicians assist pharmacists with working with the public and filling prescriptions. In order to become a pharmacy technician, students can get accredited on-the-job training or enroll in Associate degree programs. These programs prepare students for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) exam which is required in certain states.

As with other fields in healthcare, we need more minorities in pharmacy. The Argus Commission examined diversity in its latest report Diversity and Inclusion in Pharmacy Education. For this report, the commission examined diversity from five viewpoints: society diversity; the applicant pipeline; current students; pharmacy faculty and American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy’s (AACP) member institutions.

According to a study conducted in 2009, the percentage of women faculty members more than doubled in the time period of 1989 to 2009, from 20.7 percent to 45.5 percent. However, the number of minority faculty increased only slightly over the same period and remained below 10 percent for tenure-track faculty. The challenge of diversifying pharmacy also extends to the students. Of the total number of students enrolled in pharmacy degree programs for Fall 2013, 61.2 percent were women and 11.9 percent were underrepresented minority students.

PharmacistsWhile the increase in female faculty in pharmacy is significant, the AACP wants to extend opportunities to underrepresented minorities. The Argus Commission recommends that AACP create a Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion to advance the organization’s diversity goals. This committee will evaluate effective diversity programs in other healthcare professions such as medicine. There are effective outreach programs worth examining. For example, the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT Austin) College of Pharmacy has a Cooperative Pharmacy Program with the University of Texas at El Paso (UT El Paso). The student population at UT El Paso is predominately Hispanic. The Cooperative Pharmacy Program (CPP) allows El Paso students to obtain all of their pre-pharmacy prerequisites through the College of Pharmacy at UT El Paso. After students finish the program, they will receive a clinical doctorate degree offered through by UT Austin’s College of Pharmacy.

Pharmacists are an essential, accessible, trustworthy part of the healthcare team. In order to meet the growing demands of healthcare, we need more diversity in pharmacy to meet the needs of our increasingly diverse society. As the nation’s health needs – whether prevention, management of chronic disease or new public health challenges – grow, the role of pharmacists will remain at the core of our nation’s health delivery system. Pharmacy has a bright and expanding role in maintaining and improving the health of families and communities across the nation.

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