Retail pharmacies are struggling to keep enough staff on hand

Walgreens is investing $265m in its pharmacy staff in FY 2023.
article cover

Illustration: Dianna “Mick” McDougall, Photos: Getty Images

· 5 min read

One thing nearly every workplace has in common right now is shortages—and even giants like Walgreens are no exception.

Retail pharmacies across the board are struggling to hire and retain enough pharmacists and pharmacy technicians to keep up with the increased pandemic-related demand for vaccinations and prescriptions. On top of that, pharmacist burnout has prompted companies like Walgreens to reduce the workloads of their employees.

The stakes are high. A decline in pharmacy school enrollees and a seemingly tight job market for those graduates makes it hard to replace departing staff.

“One of the challenges in healthcare in general is that it has been a difficult couple of years for those working in this industry. And pharmacy isn’t immune to that,” said Nate Shenck, a managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group.

To tackle the worker shortage, Walgreens announced it would invest $265 million in its pharmacy staff in FY 2023. Those funds are earmarked for raises, additional training and career development opportunities, and larger scholarships for pharmacy students, Erin Loverher, a spokesperson at Walgreens, said via email.

Wait, what’s the difference between a pharmacist and a pharmacy tech?

Pharmacists and pharmacy techs work hand in hand but have different responsibilities and education requirements. Pharmacy techs primarily handle clerical tasks, like collecting patient information and preparing medication labels, while pharmacists handle clinical tasks like answering patient questions about medications and reviewing prescriptions for accuracy.

A pharmacist has to attend a six- to eight-year program to earn a doctor of pharmacy degree, or PharmD. Pharmacy techs generally need a high school diploma, though requirements vary by state. Some states require techs to undergo rigorous training and get certified, while others have no requirements.

Both pharmacists and pharmacy techs are in short supply

There aren’t enough pharmacists on the market thanks to a steady, four-year decline in pharmacy school graduates and a spike in the number of jobs available to those with degrees, said Shenck. The dearth of qualified people means the approximately 66,000 pharmacies in the US are competing for the same talent.

When Greg Myers, a specialist leader in healthcare at consulting firm Deloitte, graduated pharmacy school around 20 years ago, there were limited career paths for his field. Now there are more than 100 different roles pharmacists can play in the healthcare industry, he said.

“The opportunities to be a pharmacist and do a whole variety of different tasks is much greater today than it’s ever been in the history of the profession,” Myers said.

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.

These new roles outside of the traditional pharmacist job offer possibilities like working from home and harnessing new digital technologies that didn’t exist before, he added. These perks could be enticing to those entering the industry.

For pharmacy technicians, there’s increased competition from big retailers who are paying just as much for an in-store barista, said Deloitte Specialist Master Vipul Bhatt.

“What’s the point of a pharmacy technician learning these really unique skill sets […] when they could just be a cashier at a big-box retailer and easily make the same amount of money?” Bhatt asked.

Taking a load off

Walgreens has taken steps to reduce the workload for pharmacy staff, which includes building micro-fulfillment centers that use robots to fill prescriptions as well as creating jobs to handle administrative work. That gives the pharmacy staff more time to focus on providing patient care and clinical services, Loverher said.

The company now has nine centers with robots that can fill up to 300 prescriptions an hour, supporting about 3,000 stores. A human team can only fill 300 prescriptions a day, Loverher said.

By 2025, Walgreens wants its micro-fulfillment centers to handle as much as 40%–50% of the prescription volume for its retail pharmacies, Loverher said.

John Colaizzi, vice president of pharmacy services and delivery at Walgreens, said the centers “ensure that prescriptions are filled safely,” while also allowing pharmacists to “improve healthcare outcomes for their patients.”

During the pandemic, Walgreens created a new role for pharmacy techs called a pharmacy operations manager. These workers will take on some of the administrative work pharmacists usually do, said Colaizzi.

Colaizzi focuses on partnerships between Walgreens and all 141 US-based pharmacy schools as well as national pharmacy associations to bolster the pipeline of future pharmacists. Partnering with the schools has always been part of the Walgreens strategy, Loverher said.

The retail pharmacy company also got rid of task-based metrics in October, saying that pharmacy teams will be “evaluated based solely on the behaviors that best support patient care and enhance the patient experience” moving forward.

“Prescriptions have to be filled. But we don’t believe that necessarily has to be the sole role of the pharmacist,” said Colaizzi.

Navigate the healthcare industry

Healthcare Brew covers pharmaceutical developments, health startups, the latest tech, and how it impacts hospitals and providers to keep administrators and providers informed.