Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=223543
Story Retrieval Date: 12/8/2013 12:08:28 PM CST
When Bob Bray became a pharmacist 22 years ago, his responsibilities amounted to counting pills and dispensing medications.
“If I were to look at the past, I would say it used to be more taking a doctor’s orders and repeating them,” said Bray, a pharmacist at the independently run Barry’s Drugs in Chicago.
Today, he said the job is more of a collaborative effort that includes educating patients about their medications and communicating with a patient’s other health care providers.
“Pharmacist roles have evolved tremendously in [the past] 10 years,” said Kevin Colgan, corporate director of the department of pharmacy at Rush University Medical Center.
Thanks to an aging baby boomer population with chronic health conditions and greater access to prescription drugs, behind-the-counter druggists are shedding their passive past and embracing a more active role in patient health care.
And it is a profession that’s booming. The number of pharmacist jobs in the U.S. rose 28 percent over the past 10 years to 281,560 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The outlook remains strong, with the BLS’s 2010 Occupational Employment Statistics Survey estimating a 25 percent jump in the number of pharmacists by 2020. The median annual salary for the profession was $111,570 in 2010.
Some 10,000 Americans in the baby boomer generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, turn 65 years old every day, according to the John A. Hartford Foundation.
That has a twofold effect on the demand for pharmacists, according to a report from the American Society of Health-System Professionals on the industry’s changing demographics. First, the retiring of pharmacists out of the field opens up opportunities in the work force.
Second, 85 percent of Americans who are 65 and older have some sort of chronic disease like Alzheimer’s or cancer, which require prescription drug therapy.
Many drug therapies are increasingly complex, said Rush’s Colgan, citing a fast-growing specialty pharmaceutical industry. That means more extensive communication with patients and active monitoring of their use of medications, something that used to fall mainly to primary physicians.
“There are not enough primary care physicians, so being able to act as physician extenders, like pharmacists and nurse practitioners, is very important,” he said.
Jenna Siskey, who is completing a clinical pharmacist residency at University of North Carolina Hospitals, also emphasized the need for pharmacists to supplement the role of physicians.
“Pharmacists often times have a little more time than the physicians as well as the expertise to answer the patients’ questions and help impress upon them the importance of continuing to take their medications once they leave,” Siskey said.
Siskey said a team approach to patient care is the most significant way pharmacist roles are adapting to meet the needs of Baby Boomers.
“Collaboration with other health care professionals is really the only way that patients these days will get appropriate comprehensive care,” Siskey said.
In their more active role in primary care, furthermore, pharmacists improve hospitals’ efficiency by reducing patient readmissions, noted Neil Jordan, Ph.D., director of the Health Economics Center at Northwestern University’s Institute for Healthcare Studies.
The Affordable Care Act, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, reduces payments to hospitals with excess readmissions, or admissions to the same hospital within 30 days after discharge.
“Often patients do not have adequate information for their care,” Jordan said. “Pharmacists are poised to give some of the support that patients need.”
Obama Administration officials have said the ACA is already providing easier access to the growing prescription drug industry through discounts.
The lure of plentiful jobs and a six-figure median salary has meant more students pursuing a degree in pharmacy and new pharmacy schools opening up.
“It was easier to get a job as a pharmacist 10 years ago, five years ago than it is now,” Siskey noted.
Still, demand for pharmacists continues to outstrip supply, and some programs are making it more difficult to become a pharmacist by raising the requirements needed to graduate. For example by 2020, Colgan said, Rush will require its pharmacists both to have completed a residency, previously unrequired, and be board-certified.
The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy predicts that more universities will start to sponsor fellowships and residencies despite a slow-growing economy.
The association reports that the average annual tuition at a public four-year post-graduate Doctor of Pharmacy institution for in-state residents is $13,000 and at a private institution, around $28,000.