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What Are the Challenges Facing the Pharmacy Industry Right Now?

Editor’s note: This story is based on discussions at Abarca Forward, a conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, hosted by Abarca Health, a pharmacy benefit manager. MedCity News was invited to host and attend the event. Accommodations for the team were covered by Abarca. However, company officials had no input in editorial coverage. 

The pharmacy industry has changed drastically over time, particularly after Covid-19 as pharmacists were tasked with more responsibilities, such as administering Covid tests and vaccines. During a panel discussion at the Abarca Forward conference in Puerto Rico on Tuesday, one Walgreens executive provided insight into some of the challenges that the pharmacy industry is experiencing today.

One challenge is the regulatory environment as pharmacy is “by far the most regulated medical profession,” said John Colaizzi Jr., vice president of pharmacy practice at Walgreens. He said that the company operates across the country, yet every jurisdiction has different laws and different regulations.

For example, the company has implemented centralized prescription filling services (in which a central pharmacy location manages the dispensing of medications for several retail pharmacies). However, there are five states where Walgreens can’t do this because it isn’t legal despite centralized filling being in existence for over 50 years, Colaizzi said.

“Our scope of practice is different in every jurisdiction. … It is much easier to practice pharmacy in certain states,” he said.

Another major challenge is the workforce shortage in the pharmacy industry. The volume of Covid tests and Covid vaccines that pharmacists had to provide “took its toll on the workforce” and since 2018, there has been about a 35% decrease in the number of pharmacists graduating from pharmacy school, Colaizzi claimed. And this is coming at a time when the demand for prescriptions and pharmacy services is increasing.

“There is a lot of debate in the industry whether there is a pharmacist shortage or not. The data couldn’t be clearer. … We’re going to get to a point soon — if something isn’t done — where that’s a public health crisis,” he said. “If the number of pharmacists in the marketplace decreases and demand for prescriptions and services increases, that’s a recipe for disaster. I worry that my kids and grandkids won’t be able to get prescriptions filled at some point for themselves if something doesn’t change.”

To combat the workforce challenge, Colaizzi said Walgreens is trying to automate the filling of prescription drugs and leverage pharmacy technicians, who help prepare and refill prescriptions, pack medications and complete other tasks. Walgreens also has an initiative called the Deans Advisory Council, which comprises 17 colleges of pharmacy and aims to motivate more people to go into the pharmacy industry.

At the same time, efforts are being made to form a national pharmacy union in response to working conditions at large chains like Walgreens and CVS. The Pharmacy Guild, which launched in November, wants better pay and secure hours for pharmacy technicians, who often struggle to make a living, Shane Jerominski, a pharmacist and co-founder of the union, previously told MedCity News. In addition, pharmacists are overworked, which can lead to mistakes and dangerous outcomes for patients, Jerominski argued. These working conditions are partially responsible for the lack of people looking to go into the pharmacy business, he added.

“There’s been a massive reduction in the amount of students who want to go into pharmacy because of all this negative media attention,” Jerominski previously said. “It sounds like a really bad deal, unless you get a clinical position or unless you’re working in a hospital.”

Photo: bong hyunjung, Getty Images


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