As with clinical laboratories, worker shortage is affecting large retail pharmacy chains and independent pharmacies alike
Staffing shortages in clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups caused by the Great Resignation is having a similar impact on retail pharmacy chains. Consequently, pharmacy chains are reducing store hours and even closing sites, according to USA Today.
As Dark Daily covered in “Clinical Laboratories Suffer During the ‘Great Resignation,” the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from August 2021 through December 2021, the healthcare and social assistance workforce saw nearly 2.8 million workers quit—an average of 551,000 people during each of those months. By comparison, in December 2020, 419,000 healthcare workers left their jobs.
Pharmacies now report similar shortages in qualified workers, partly due to the sharp decrease in revenue from COVID-19 vaccinations, but also due to worker burnout. Both developments have counterparts in clinical laboratories as well.
“I’m concerned that without the help from the COVID-19 vaccinations that everyone needed, these pharmacies that were able to tough it out for another year or two might not be able to continue,” B. Douglas Hoey, PharmD, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA), told USA Today. Clinical laboratories that processed large numbers of SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics have experienced the same sudden drop in revenue causing similar difficulties maintaining staffing levels. (Photo copyright: Cardinal Health.)
Staffing Shortages Leading to Safety Concerns
According to the Washington Post’s coverage of a study conducted in 2021 of 6,400 pharmacists in various retail and hospital environments, a majority did not feel they could conduct their jobs efficiently or safely.
- “75% of the pharmacists in [the] survey disagreed with the statement ‘Sufficient time is allocated for me to safely perform patient care/clinical duties.’”
- “71% said there were not enough pharmacists working to ‘meet patient care/clinical duties.’”
- “65% said ‘payment for pharmacy services’ did not support their ‘ability to meet clinical and non-clinical duties.’”
“Workplace conditions have pushed many pharmacists and pharmacy teams to the brink of despair,” said the board of trustees of the American Pharmacists Association (APhA) in a press release, the Washington Post reported. “Pharmacy burnout is a significant patient safety issue. It is impacting patients today with delayed prescription fulfillment, unacceptable waits for vaccines and testing, and potential errors due to high volume, long hours, and pressure to meet performance metrics.”
This is a sentiment that has been repeated across every facet of healthcare—including in clinical laboratories—where staff shortages are being felt.
Shortage of Pharmacists or Lack of Morale?
In “Drugstores Make Slow Headway on Staffing Problems,” the Associated Press outlined from where it believes the staffing problems originate. “There isn’t a shortage of pharmacists. There’s just a shortage of pharmacists who want to work in those high-stress environments that aren’t adequately resourced,” Richard Dang, PharmD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Southern California (USC), told the Associated Press.
This statement is reminiscent of the views expressed by Susanna Bator, a former clinical laboratory technician, in her personal essay published in The Daily Nurse titled, “The Hidden Healthcare Heroes: A Lab Techs Journey Through the Pandemic.” She previously worked at the Cleveland Clinic and with MetroHealth System in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dark Daily covered Bator’s journey as a clinical laboratory technician working in the trenches during the COVID-19 pandemic in “Clinical Laboratory Technician Shares Personal Journey and Experience with Burnout During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
“The pressure never let up. No matter how mind-numbing and repetitive the work could get, we had to work with constant vigilance, as there was absolutely no room for error,” Bator wrote.
“We techs were left unsupported and unmentored throughout the pandemic,” she continued. “No one cared if we were learning or growing in our job, and there was little encouragement for us to enter training or residency programs. We were just expendable foot soldiers: this is not a policy that leads to long-term job retention.”
Healthcare workers feeling burnt out and under-appreciated during the pandemic led to mass resignations that produced staffing shortages throughout the industry. It appears this trend has caught up to pharmacies as well.
Workforce Wasn’t Ready
Local and chain pharmacies played an important role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Pharmacists distributed COVID-19 tests and treatment to their communities. But for many it was a struggle to keep up.
Stefanie Ferreri, PharmD, Distinguished Professor in Pharmacy Practice and Chair of the Division of Practice Advancement and Clinical Education at University of North Carolina’s Eshelman School of Pharmacy, told the Associated Press that she felt the expanding role of pharmacies in public health was “awesome” but stated that “the workforce wasn’t quite ready” for what took place during the pandemic.
Much like Bator recounted in her essay, pharmacy workers suddenly had new responsibilities, longer working hours, and little room for error.
“There are multiple stories about pharmacists just getting overwhelmed. The stress level and burnout is high,” Dima M. Qato, PharmD, PhD, told USA Today. Qato is Hygeia Centennial Chair and Associate Professor (with tenure) in the Titus Family Department of Clinical Pharmacy at the University of Southern California. “So, pharmacists leave, and stores have to shorten” their hours, she added.
Scheduling and Patience Can Help
What can be done to soften some of the issues staff shortages are causing? Ferreri suggests that pharmacies set appointment times for regular customers so that a pharmacist’s workload can be more predictable. An appointment system can ease stress for both the pharmacist and patient. Ferreri advises customers to be patient when it comes to their prescriptions. She suggests patients give pharmacies more than a day’s notice for refills.
“I think on both sides of the counter, we need to all have grace and realize this is a very challenging and stressful time for everyone,” said Brigid Groves, PharmD, Vice President, Pharmacy Practice at the American Pharmacists Association.
With burnout, staff shortages, and stress affecting nearly every aspect of the healthcare industry, having patience with each other will go a long way to helping clinical laboratories, pharmacies, and patients navigate the road ahead.