US drugstores look beyond borders for pharmacists

Last Updated: 2001-07-06 13:09:14 EDT (Reuters Health)

By Ellis Mnyandu

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Faced with rapid growth in the use of prescription drugs, the United States may soon have to try to attract pharmacists from abroad, in the same way software programmers did in the 1990s to sustain the boom in the high-tech economy.

Obtaining working visas for pharmacists from countries such as South Africa and India would help retail drugstores fill thousands of vacancies and keep pace with the rising demands of an aging population and a surge in the number of new drugs hitting the US market, analysts and industry experts say.

The National Association of Chain Drug Stores says that four out of five patients who visit a doctor in the United States leave with a prescription. US prescription drug sales rose to about $132 billion last year, from $121 billion in 1999, and are expected to rise another 75% in the next 5 years.

"The pharmacist shortage is the biggest pain for the US pharmacy industry right now," said Steve Croke, president of the Colorado-based PharmacyChoice.com, one of the nation's leading pharmacist recruiting agencies. "The only choice available to the industry is to get people from abroad. Closing down pharmacies could be too costly for the industry."

NACDS says that unfilled full-time and part-time pharmacists positions in the United States more than doubled to 6,920 in February 2000 from 2 years earlier. The shortage, which has now surpassed 7,000 according to some industry experts, is equal to almost 7% of the 106,000 pharmacists employed at US drugstores.

Last week, CVS Corp., the No. 2 US drugstore chain behind Walgreen Co., said that some of its pharmacies have had to start shutting down earlier. Sales, it said, have been hurt by the pharmacist shortage and the resulting decline in service to customers.

Croke said that while the drug retailing industry already uses some foreign-trained pharmacists, employers are still not looking beyond US borders as aggressively as software firms once did.

Part of their problem, he said, is the often cumbersome process of hiring a foreign-trained pharmacist. It can take up to 18 months and about three tests before employers can obtain an H-1B work permit visa, which allows skilled foreign workers to be employed in the United States for up to 6 years. The United States currently allows 195,000 skilled workers to enter the country for work every year through H-1B visas.

Eyleen Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), said medical and pharmacist-related jobs take up about 2% of all the H-1B visas issued every year. She declined to say whether there had been a recent surge in applications on behalf of foreign pharmacists.

In a bid to encourage recruitment of foreign pharmacists and make the process less daunting, Croke said he is setting up an online recruiting tool to help link employers with prospective candidates from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Nigeria, and the Philippines, as well as parts of Western Europe and the former Soviet Union. The site will go live in less than 2 weeks.

Croke said CVS is set to evaluate the new recruiting tool. "The other big benefit of this tool we've developed is that it will give employers access to our international database of resumes and other resources to help ease the process of hiring someone from abroad," he said.

"Getting people from abroad is not a bad option," said Stephen Chick, an analyst at J.P. Morgan. Still, he said the costs in relocation, travel and housing might more than offset the revenue gained by being fully staffed.

The pharmacist shortage is partly the result of increased training mandated by schools and accreditation authorities. Pharmacists in the United States have historically been required to study for 5 years, including one year of on-the-job training. But in an apparent effort to prepare the US drug retailing industry for new drug therapies, the period of study has been extended to a minimum of 6 years.

The loss of trained pharmacists to higher-paying opportunities outside the drugstore sector, such as at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, has also contributed to the shortage.

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