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What can a ‘snapshot’ of the community pharmacy workforce in England tell us about the sector?

C+D read through a long-awaited Health Education England (HEE) report so you don't have to. Here's everything you need to know about the state of the community pharmacy workforce in 2021.

Launching a survey that aims to reveal how the community pharmacy workforce is made up in England is no easy task, especially during a global pandemic.

HEE's Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey 2021 – the launch of which was postponed from autumn 2020 to spring 2021 due to COVID-19 – received a response rate of 47%, which it explained is “considered acceptable in pharmacy practice research” but is nonetheless a lower rate than that achieved by the same survey it conducted in 2017.

Despite the lower rate of responses, the survey managed to gather data from 5,271 pharmacies in England, which HEE analysed to reveal what is likely to be the closest “snapshot” of the community pharmacy workforce in 2021.

Read on to find out C+D’s pick of the most interesting findings from the report, which were published in hefty a 67-page document yesterday (January 20).


Reduction in number of pharmacies and workforce


The survey revealed that a total of 101,108 people were working across community pharmacies in England in May-June 2021 – when the data was collected – with 74,493 of them in full-time equivalent (FTE) posts.

HEE noted that the number of pharmacies has decreased since 2017, when there were 11,832 community pharmacies operating in England, compared to 11,279 in 2021.

However, despite the lower number of pharmacies in England, the survey revealed that the total headcount of pharmacists had increased by just over 4,000 since the 2017 survey. Meanwhile, the FTE number of pharmacists has also grown by 2,798 since 2017.

Other than pharmacist and trained dispensing assistant roles, every role was filled - on average - by fewer than one full-time worker per community pharmacy, the survey revealed.


Most populous pharmacy roles in 2021


Pharmacists and trained dispensing assistants were the two “most populous employee groups in 2021”, HEE found.

They represented 28% and 31% of the FTE workforce respectively.




Whereas employed pharmacists made up 55% of the total pharmacist headcount in 2021, locums made up 27%.

However, HEE specified that respondents were asked to “only include locum or relief pharmacists who worked regularly at the community pharmacy, which was defined, for example, as once a week or twice a month”. Not all respondents were able to share this data, the organisation added.


Highest vacancy rates and hard-to-fill roles


The highest reported vacancy rate was for accuracy checkers, at 20%. However, this category does not include the pharmacy technician role, for which the vacancy rate stood at 7%, HEE specified.

Trainee medicine counter assistants, trainee dispensing assistants, and trained medicine counter assistants also reported high numbers of vacancies, with 18%, 13% and 11% vacancy rates respectively.

Fifty-six per cent of respondents indicated that pharmacist roles were difficult to fill, while 58% said the same of accuracy checkers and trained dispensing assistants’ roles.

An even greater proportion of respondents, 60%, said it was either “fairly” or “very” difficult to fill pharmacy technician roles.

These results chime with data highlighted by a Community Pharmacy Workforce Development Group survey published in June, which found a 9% FTE pharmacist vacancy rate across England – with higher variations in certain regions.


Regional workforce variation


According to HEE’s data, there are significant differences in how the community pharmacy workforce is made up in different regions across England.

In London, for example, pharmacists made up 33% of the FTE workforce. Meanwhile, this percentage ranged between 25-27% in all the other English regions. However, pharmacies in London reported higher vacancy rates than those for England for all roles apart from pharmacists.

In terms of recruitment challenges, vacancy rates for pharmacists were the highest in the south west and east of England, at 14% and 11% respectively, according to the report.

Respondents from the south west region also reported a “much greater” level of difficulty in filling pharmacist roles, with 81% of respondents from this area saying this was either “fairly” or “very difficult”.

However, they also reported “greater difficulty in filling vacancies for pharmacy technicians, accuracy checkers, trained dispensing assistants, trained and trainee medicine counter assistants”, according to the report.


Independent prescribing and use of skills


The survey also identified a total of 1,154 independent prescriber pharmacists – representing “approximately one independent prescriber pharmacist per 10 community pharmacies”, HEE wrote.

However, just a quarter (290) of those with an independent prescribing qualification were using their prescribing skills as of 2021, according to HEE.

This could be set to change, as NHS England and NHS Improvement last year (November 8) pledged to invest up to £15.9 million over the next four years into a programme to “enhance” pharmacists’ and pharmacy technicians’ skills – including independent prescribing training for some pharmacists.

While the data only offer a “snapshot” of the community pharmacy workforce in 2021, it helpfully indicates that the number of pharmacists and trained dispensing assistants has grown since 2017.

But it is ultimately for employers to understand how to retain and grow that workforce to keep their pharmacies functioning well, despite the financial constraints they are currently facing. 


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