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

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

HEE Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey 2021 – whose launch was delayed from fall 2020 to spring 2021 due to COVID-19 – received a 47% response rate, which she says is “considered acceptable in practice research pharmaceutical” but is nevertheless a lower rate than that achieved by the same survey conducted in 2017.

Despite the low response rate, the survey managed to collect data from 5,271 pharmacies in England, which HEE has analyzed to reveal what is likely to be the closest ‘snapshot’ of the workforce to community pharmacy in 2021.

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

Reduction in the number of pharmacies and staff

The survey found that a total of 101,108 people worked in community pharmacies in England in May-June 2021 – when the data was collected – of which 74,493 were in full-time equivalent (FTE) positions.

HEE noted that the number of pharmacies has fallen since 2017, when there were 11,832 community pharmacies operating in England, down from 11,279 in 2021.

However, despite the lower number of pharmacies in England, the survey found that the total number of pharmacists has increased by just over 4,000 since the 2017 survey. At the same time, the number of FTE pharmacists has also increased of 2,798 since 2017.

Apart from the roles of pharmacist and skilled dispensing assistant, each role was occupied – on average – by less than one full-time worker per community pharmacy, the survey found.

Most Popular Pharmacy Roles in 2021

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

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

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

However, HEE clarified that respondents were asked to “include only 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 organization added.

Highest vacancy rates and hard to fill positions

The highest reported vacancy rate was for precision controllers, at 20%. However, this category does not include the position of pharmacy technician, for which the vacancy rate is 7%, specifies HEE.

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

Fifty-six percent of respondents indicated that pharmacist roles were difficult to fill, while 58% said the same of precision checker and trained dispensing assistant roles.

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

These findings are consistent with data highlighted by a Community Pharmacy Workforce Development Group survey published in June, which found an FTE pharmacist vacancy rate of 9% in England – with greater variation in some regions.

Regional workforce variation

According to HEE data, there are significant differences in the composition of the community pharmacy workforce across different regions of England.

In London, for example, pharmacists made up 33% of the FTE workforce. Meanwhile, this percentage varied between 25 and 27% in all other English regions. However, pharmacies in London reported higher vacancy rates than those in England for all positions except pharmacists.

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

Respondents in the South West region also reported a “much higher” level of difficulty in filling pharmacist roles, with 81% of respondents in this region saying it was either “somewhat” or “very difficult.”

However, they also reported “increased difficulty in filling vacancies for pharmacy technicians, precision controllers, trained dispensing assistants, trained medication counter assistants, and interns,” according to the report.

Independent prescription and use of skills

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

However, only a quarter (290) of people with an independent prescribing qualification were using their prescribing skills in 2021, according to HEE.

That could change, as NHS England and NHS Improvement last year (8 November) pledged to invest up to £15.9m over the next four years in a scheme to ‘upgrade’ the skills of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians – including independent prescribing training for some pharmacists.

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

But it is ultimately up to employers to figure out how to retain and develop this workforce so that their pharmacies continue to run smoothly, despite the financial constraints they currently face.

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