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Number of pharmacists in England up from 2017, but vacancy rate still high

The number of pharmacists working in community pharmacy in England has increased since 2017, although the number of vacancies for full-time pharmacist roles has also grown since then, new data has indicated.

The total headcount for pharmacists working in community pharmacies across England stood at 27,406 in 2021, according to data collated by the Health Education England (HEE) and published today (January 20) in the Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey 2021 report.

In 2021, some 20,489 pharmacists were in full-time equivalent (FTE) posts. Since 2017, both the total pharmacist headcount and number of FTE pharmacists in England – which were 23,284 and 17,691 respectively – have increased, according to HEE.

However, the 2021 survey – which gathered data from 5,271 pharmacies in England between May and June last year – also showed that 8% of all FTE pharmacist posts were vacant last year. This is four percentage points higher than the 4% FTE vacancy rate identified by HEE in 2017.

The 2021 FTE vacancy rate was higher for other roles in pharmacy. The highest reported was a vacancy rate of 20% for accuracy checkers – which does not include the pharmacy technician role, for which the vacancy rate stood at 7%.


Difficult to fill pharmacists’ roles


However, 56% of respondents indicated that pharmacist roles were difficult to fill, while 58% said the same of accuracy checkers and trained dispensing assistants’ roles.

The role considered the most difficult to fill vacancies for in 2021 was that of pharmacy technician, with 60% of respondents reporting the pharmacy technician role ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ difficult to fill compared to any other role.

On the other hand, the roles respondents considered easiest to fill were trainee medicines counter assistants and delivery drivers, with only 24% reporting the roles ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ difficult to fill compared to any other role.


“Notable difference” between London and other regions


The profile of the workforce “varied across regions, with notable differences particularly between London and other regions”, according to the report.

“With the exception of FTE vacancy rates for pharmacists, community pharmacies in the London region recorded higher vacancy rates for all roles than the national rate,” it said. 

Vacancy rates were also higher in the east of England for all pharmacy roles, with the exception of delivery drivers.

There was also “some variation in vacancy rates by NHS England and NHS Improvement region”, the report added.


Proportion of independent prescribers unchanged


The proportion of independent prescriber pharmacists per community pharmacy remained the same in 2021 compared to 2017, representing, on average, one independent prescriber per every 10 community pharmacies. The report identified 1,154 independent prescriber pharmacists in England, filling 933 FTE roles.

NPA director of corporate affairs Gareth Jones warned that HEE's should be treated with caution due to the “relatively low response rate”.

However, the findings are “are consistent with what we hear all the time from pharmacies struggling to recruit and retain pharmacists and pharmacy technicians and maintain services”, he said.

“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,” he added.

As of September 2021, the reported number of FTE pharmacists working for primary care networks stood at 2,626, C+D reported last year.

The Company Chemists’ Association warned last year that further temporary and permanent closures of community pharmacies will “be unavoidable” if the government does not take action to resolve the pharmacist workforce crisis affecting primary care.

Last year, pharmacists were also added to the government’s shortage occupation list.


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