Pharmacist Oversupply and Lessons From the Legal Profession

President Obama recently suggested that law school be shortened by a year. Could a similar proposal to shorten the length of pharmacy school take flight?

I have been concerned about the growth in the number of pharmacy graduates because the supply of pharmacists seems to be greater than the demand right now. In previous musings, I have suggested that health care reform will create new jobs for pharmacists, so in a few years the situation may be reversed and the supply of pharmacists will once again equal demand. There may even be a pharmacist shortage again.

However, as I watch the slow recovery of the economy, I find myself wondering whether these new jobs will really materialize. Like many others, my own state is looking at a cut in Medicaid dispensing fees, making the business side of pharmacy even more tenuous than it already is.

Because the possibility of an oversupply of pharmacists remains, I have been following the news from the legal profession, where the oversupply of lawyers has resulted in a decline in law school applications. A Wall Street Journal article from August 25 titled “Legal Education on Trial: Is the Third Year Necessary?” in particular caught my attention. “In the first two years, young people are learning in the class room,” President Obama was quoted as saying in the article. “The third year they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much.”

Of course, there was much opposition to this proposal, and it may not go anywhere. However, while reading the article, I was reminded that when I was educated my practical education was controlled by the board of pharmacy and not the college of pharmacy. Today, the fourth year of the PharmD curriculum is all practical experience. Although I haven’t heard anyone suggest it, changing the way that practical experience is worked in to a pharmacy education could help reduce the debt burden on pharmacy graduates.

If practical education weren’t part of the curriculum, you could reduce tuition costs by a full year and pay trainees a smaller salary. For many of you, this possibility may seem so farfetched that there is no chance it could never happen. I hope you are right, but I have come to realize that what goes around often comes around again.