Unlike most college students nearing graduation, Clarissa Hall is not worried about finding a job -- she is already considering several offers, including some with possible starting salaries of at least $80,000.
Hall is benefiting from a nationwide shortage of pharmacists, which has prompted fierce competition between employers for new pharmacy graduates.
"Pretty much everyone in my class has people calling them left and right about jobs," said Hall, a student at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "I've had several people calling me, and I don't even graduate until May."
The shortage of pharmacists, though, is not good for others in the medical field or their patients, say those who have been watching the shortage worsen over the last decade.
It was fueled by several factors, especially changes in insurance policies and federal regulations of pharmaceuticals, which made drugs available to more people.
Add to that an aging population and more drugs being manufactured and advertised to the public, and the number of prescriptions has increased from 2 billion to 3.2 billion in the past decade. That problem is expected to worsen after the new Medicare prescription drug program begins Jan. 1, pharmacy officials said.
Independent and chain pharmacies, hospitals and nursing homes are scrambling to find people to fill orders.
The National Association of Chain Drug Stores reported about 5,950 full- and part-time openings in July in its 37,000 member stores. The American Hospital Association reported a 7.4 percent vacancy rate for pharmacists as of December 2004, with 38 percent of its members saying it was harder to recruit pharmacists last year than in 2003.
The National Community Pharmacists Association, which represents independent pharmacies, does not keep track of job openings.
A consortium of pharmacy groups called the Pharmacy Manpower Project issued a report in 2002 predicting 157,000 unfilled pharmacy openings by 2020.
The need to fill all those new prescriptions has been partially addressed by an increase in technology and the use of pharmacy technicians, said David Knapp, dean of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland.
But that has not addressed increasing pressure on pharmacists to become more involved in helping patients manage their drugs, especially elderly patients who may take several medicines, said Knapp, who coordinated the conference that released the Manpower report.
"Every hour of every day, dozens if not hundreds of prescriptions are coming across the counter," he said. "They are trying to do that while at the same time counseling patients, calling physicians, helping diabetic patients manage eight or 10 medicines, teaching parents how to help their child use his new asthma inhaler. It's a real stressed-out situation for pharmacists."
Around the country, universities are opening pharmacy schools or expanding existing programs, but it could take years for supply to meet demand. Some schools have reported 10 applicants for every pharmacy opening, although that figure includes people applying to more than one school, said Lucinda L. Maine, executive vice president of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in Alexandria, Va.
"It is a great job market for those who get in," Maine said. "But we also have a lot of disappointed people who are being turned away."
Many universities have opened satellite programs, and about 20 pharmacy schools have opened in the past five years, Knapp said. That should increase the number of graduating pharmacists to more than 10,000 in 2007, compared with about 8,000 graduates in 2003-04, Maine said.
"There is such an astonishing interest," Maine said. "It's the highest level I've seen in my 30 years in pharmacy admissions."
But even new schools and expansions will not help in the short term, which raises concerns about whether patients will get the information they need about their medications, said Robert Piepho, dean of the Missouri-Kansas City pharmacy school.
"If patients don't have access [to pharmacists], they run the risk of adverse effects from drug interactions," he said.