NHS survey paints complex picture of pharmacist vacancies

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NHS survey paints complex picture of pharmacist vacancies

A new NHS survey suggests that the number of full-time vacancies for pharmacists in England's community pharmacy sector may have doubled between 2017 and 2021.

Despite this finding, the same survey shows the average number of full-time pharmacists per pharmacy may have risen by a fifth.  

Health Education England’s 2021 community pharmacy workforce survey, which received responses from 47 per cent of contractors (5,271 pharmacies), found that the vacancy rate for both full-time equivalent positions and headcount as a whole stood at eight per cent.

HEE said that while this was “towards the lower end” of vacancy rates when compared with other positions such as accuracy checking technicians (20 per cent of positions unfilled in 2021), it was twice the four per cent vacancy rate reported in HEE’s last workforce survey in 2017.

Meanwhile, the proportion of respondents who said it was “fairly difficult” or “very difficult” to fill pharmacist positions has risen dramatically, from 21 per cent in 2017 to 56 per cent last year.

There were regional discrepancies in both vacancy rates and reported difficulty in hiring pharmacists, with the South West and East of England reporting the highest proportion of vacancies at 14 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.

More pharmacists per pharmacy, survey suggests

Despite these findings, the average number of FTE pharmacists per pharmacy was higher last year than in 2017 (1.82 FTE pharmacists versus 1.5 in the last survey).

There were 27,406 pharmacists filling 20,489 FTE posts in community pharmacy last year, compared to 23,284 pharmacists filling 17,691 FTE posts in 2017.

The pharmacist and dispensing assistant cohorts are the only ones to have grown since 2017, with the overall community pharmacy staff headcount shrinking by five per cent to 101,108 in 2021.

The greatest reduction in staff numbers was observed in medicines counter assistants, pre-registration pharmacy technicians and accuracy checkers.

HEE noted a number of limitations in its findings, such as the lower response rate compared to 2017.

The organisation said it used probability weighting to reduce any bias resulting from the low response rate, and acknowledged that while this was common practice “certain assumptions are being made that the non-respondents are similar to respondents”.

The 2021 data “should therefore be considered as illustrative” rather than definitive, it concluded.

NPA: ‘Dire funding situation’

Gareth Jones, head of corporate affairs at the National Pharmacy Association, said that while the data should be treated with caution, the findings around rising vacancy rates “are consistent with what we hear all the time from pharmacies struggling to recruit and retain pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, and maintain services”.

“It’s a complicated picture, with the pressures of the pandemic overlaying the dire funding situation and a continued drain of pharmacy staff into GP surgeries.”

Mr Jones called on the NHS to mandate local impact assessments before recruiting to primary care networks or CCGs under the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme.

PSNC director of NHS services Alastair Buxton said: “Over the last year contractors have been struggling with a range of workforce challenges which in many cases have had a major adverse impact on them and their teams.

“Some of the challenges have been related to the pandemic, but many result from the impact of a range of other factors within the sector and the wider labour market. 

“Solutions to workforce shortages are generally implemented over the longer-term… in the immediate future, we will continue to seek to ensure the Government and NHS understands the issues contractors are facing and they apply this when making decisions which affect the sector.”

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