Washington is struggling more than other states to fill job vacancies for pharmacists and is upping the ante to attract more college scholars to enter the field. It’s ushered in new strategies, such as a recent 30% tuition reduction for out-of-state pharmacy students in Spokane.
Washington State University recently lowered its nonresident tuition for the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences’ Doctor of Pharmacy program by $12,000 a year, effective this fall. It’s expected largely to attract Idaho students, but also others from Oregon and Montana, said Jennifer Robinson, a college associate dean of professional education.
“For our students in northern Idaho who are interested in pharmacy, they then would have access to pretty close to in-state tuition,” she said. It’s hoped that many of those students will take jobs later in Washington.
“This makes our program one of the most affordable on the West Coast,” Robinson said.
The college’s 2023-24 tuition is $25,460 a year for state residents, and now $30,686 a year for nonresidents. This year, the college had a graduating class of 122. The four-year doctor of pharmacy program is based in Spokane, but the college also has an extension in Yakima.
Robinson said the University of Washington has the state’s only other pharmacy doctorate program. Panhandle students have to go to southern Idaho.
WSU has launched other steps to increase enrollment that include a Community Colleges of Spokane collaboration toward a new bachelor’s of science in pharmaceutical and medical sciences, a Rural Health Initiative that offers scholarships and student recruitment.
A 2022 report by the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy ranked Washington fourth in the U.S. for the highest demand for pharmacists. It also found that the job growth rate is expected to outpace the number of graduates entering the field.
Only Vermont, Connecticut and Alaska have greater numbers of job postings for the licensed professionals.
The new pharmaceutical and medical sciences bachelor’s program begins fall 2024, with slots for 25 students.
It’s geared so that those students can complete the first two years of general education studies at a Spokane community college or similar institution, then transfer to WSU Spokane as a junior to complete the bachelor’s. They then can pursue a doctorate in pharmacy, medicine, dental, research or other health-related degree.
Previously, the college has had an agreement with the community colleges for prerequisite courses required by the pharmacy college, but the new bachelor’s was developed to give more “behind-the-scenes” study of pharmaceutical and medical research, Robinson said.
A kick-start to the Rural Health Initiative began last year with an anonymous $2.2 million donation, and it will train pharmacy students to specialize in rural health care.
The program, based at WSU’s Spokane and Yakima campuses, operates as a special track under the pharmacy college. Along with regular coursework, the curriculum emphasizes rural health topics, hands-on experiences in rural clinics and a capstone project focused on improving an aspect of rural health care.
Students accepted into the program are eligible to receive a $10,000-a-year scholarship for the final three years of studies. In return, they make a commitment to practice for at least three years in rural or medically underserved areas after graduation.
Coming out of the pandemic, more pharmacists walked away than expected, Robinson said.
“They were not only doing traditional work, but there was an increase in the amount of work related to testing patients for coronavirus, providing access to vaccines and then providing medications for those who tested positive for coronavirus,” she said.
“We saw a lot of individuals, particularly in community pharmacy, leave the profession and move on to other things or move onto retirement.
“At the same time, a lot of students decided to wait until entering programs that were within higher education, so we’re seeing across the United States, particularly in pharmacy, decreased enrollment.”
To be a pharmacist, a student needs to complete a doctor of pharmacy degree and then get licensed by the state.
Robinson said many state residents depend on a pharmacist who knows about patient care close to where they live, as opposed to mail-order only for their medication.
But pharmacy graduates don’t just work in pharmacies. They’re hired by hospitals, addiction treatment centers, the government, long-term care facilities, clinics and research institutions. The WSU college also offers a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical and molecular medicine, and those students generally work in the pharmaceutical industry.
A Jan. 30 American Pharmacists Association news release said pharmacy teams across the country have been stressed and stretched in delivering patient care. The group cited burnout and a need for appropriate staffing and workplace conditions, as some retail pharmacies earlier this year announced cuts to pharmacy hours.
“Some are blaming reduced hours on a pharmacist shortage,” interim chief executive Ilisa Bernstein said in the association’s news release.
“It is incorrect to say that there is a shortage of pharmacists or pharmacy technicians. More accurately, there is a shortage of pharmacists and technicians willing to work under the current conditions.”
Some pharmacy groups, members of Congress and federal officials place blame on pharmacy benefit management, or PBM, companies, which negotiate with manufacturers, insurers and pharmacies on drug prices, according to a Washington Post article in March.
Critics say the benefit management companies carve out too-low pharmacy reimbursements, leading to shortfalls and staffing cuts. The companies say they help deliver discounts to patients and point to the prices charged by drug manufacturers as the driver of high drug costs.
Robinson said Washington state is progressive regarding how pharmacists practice, meaning they can provide preventive care for minor ailments and conditions. They can give immunizations and do rapid COVID-19 tests.
As another example, she said a clinic’s physician might diagnose diabetes, then hand off patient care to a pharmacist to manage medications and health goals.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why demand for pharmacists in the state is probably higher than other areas,” she said. “Pharmacists have the ability to keep patients out of the hospital and reduce the cost of care.”