ACPE, or the Accreditation Council on Pharmacy Education is in the process of reviewing and updating its requirements for pharmacist education in the US. They set the bar for pharmacy curricula and education in the US.
Right now, the entry degree in the US is the Doctor of Pharmacy (or PharmD) degree. Students can either go 0–6 straight out of high school and earn this doctorate degree straight from high school, or a student may complete a 4-year BS degree before then moving on to 3–4 more years of the PharmD program.
The first time I graduated from pharmacy school, our school was just offering the 5-year BS degree, OR an optional 6th year for a PharmD. I ran screaming from the building because 5 years felt like a lot of education. Then, I decided later in my career that everyone had a PharmD as the entry degree to the profession, so I went back to pharmacy school part-time for 2 more years to complete my own PharmD. (Yes, I was not the smartest in my education.) Historically, even before the time where I went to pharmacy school, there was at one time a 4-year pharmacy degree, and a PD license for pharmacists, some of whom I studied under on rotations and early jobs in my career.
It was Oscar Wilde who said you can never be overdressed or overeducated; however, he was not a pharmacist. With all the talk about debt and the increasing number of years of education in the US going from a 5-year BS degree to a 6-year PharmD program about 20 years ago now, I wonder — are we overeducated as pharmacists in the US?
I was curious — so I asked ChatGPT this morning what it takes to be a licensed pharmacist in other countries. Here’s what I found in a sample of them:
- Australia — a tertiary degree of a bachelor’s (4-year) or master’s in pharmacy
- Canada — PharmD, 4 years after 3–4 years in a BS program
- China — a 5-year pharmacy degree after secondary education
- France — a 5-year program after secondary education
- Germany — after secondary education, a 5-year degree in pharmacy.
- New Zealand — After secondary education, a 4-year college degree in pharmacy, with possible postgraduate specialization and training
- Spain — after secondary education, a 5-year program. They also offer postgrad education for specialization
- UK — 1 year of pre-requisite training, then a 4-year Master of Pharmacy (MPharm) degree
- For more — check Wikipedia.
Also, all countries require some type of licensure testing in order to become licensed pharmacists. Here in the US, in addition to the 3–6 year PharmD degree*, pharmacists in most jurisdictions have to take a national pharmacy examination (the NAPLEX) and a state pharmacy law exam (in most states, the Multistate Pharmaceutical Jurisprudence Examination or MPJE).
There has been a lot of consternation in recent years about the sea of debt that many pharmacy students take on with pharmacy school — sometimes six figures or more. Furthermore, the number of pharmacy schools has skyrocketed, from around 85 when I graduated, now to over 140 pharmacy schools in the US — debate as to whether or not pharmacy programs have become a ‘cash cow’ for many universities since it’s a longer commitment and degree. We now have a record-high number of pharmacists in the US around 315K. (No, there is no shortage of pharmacists in the US, despite the false narratives.)
This makes me wonder if there’s a better way.
Do retail pharmacists really need this much education?
What if we offered the following:
- A 2-year apprenticeship with undergraduate education — like the trades (plumbing, electrician, etc.)
- A 4-year BS degree. Post BS, sit for exams.
- Postgraduate BS training — OPTIONAL in the classroom or learned on the job
- A master’s or doctorate degree for an additional 2 years — but OPTIONAL in the classroom
Nurse assistants and nurses have more of this structure in the US. Maybe we need more of a ladder in pharmacy education, so students don’t drown in debt and we make it easier to develop a career and education over the course of one’s career, rather than bunching all the education up front and putting debt on students and enslave them to debt at the beginning of their careers?
I don’t know.
What I do know: we need to begin thinking differently about the profession. Otherwise, we may not have a profession left. We need to strike a balance between affordability and a reasonable, pragmatic approach to providing safe, optimal medications and services to our patients. Don’t get me wrong — I love education. But, have we gone overboard?
Erin L. Albert is a pharmacist, author, and VP of Pharmacy Relations at Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drug Company, PBC. Opinions are her own, and not necessarily those of her employer.