New pharmacy graduates looking to become employed in Hong Kong might be out of luck. The city is currently facing a liberal surplus of pharmacists, an issue that came to light two years ago when the supply of new graduates was seen to exceed the market demand. There is an expected surplus of 80 pharmacists annually in the industry, and this trend is likely to continue in the coming decade.

A government study on healthcare manpower (set to be released later this year) has projected that pharmacists will most likely be the only healthcare profession to see excess numbers in the next ten years, while the remaining medical professions, including doctors, nurses and dentists, will continue to face severe shortage.

Increase in student numbers despite waning demand and limited hiring opportunities

One possible explanation of the surplus could be due to limited hiring in public hospitals – a strong possibility, as the Hospital Authority has often been criticised for their low annual recruitment of new pharmacists.

Another possible reason could be that more pharmacies have been forced to close down due to a retail downturn. Pharmacies in Hong Kong have been dealing with rising rent costs and lowering numbers of customers for some time, and to save costs, many of these have resorted to converting their businesses into medical shops, which do not require pharmacists.

Without pharmacists, these medical shops are not allowed to sell prescription drugs, but this has not deterred them. Since early last year, there has been a 20% drop in the number of pharmacies - a reduction from 600 to 550 stores.

This number is in stark contrast with recent increases in local pharmacy student quotas, with Chinese University raising its annual intake from 30 to 55 students in 2012. The government also expanded the number of local training places for pharmacists in the most recent academic year. With the addition of pharmacists returning from overseas training, the industry faces up to 150 individuals aiming to join the oversupplied profession annually.

Developing more comprehensive roles for pharmacists in the patient care process

Many experts believe that pharmacists are an underused resource in a stressed healthcare system. A logical solution to the surplus issue would be to involve pharmacists in a more comprehensive way in the patient care process, allowing them to take on bigger roles in patients’ medication needs and treatment management.

Amongst the suggested measures have included increasing the annual intake of pharmacists in public hospitals, and subsequently introducing ward pharmacists in every wing of the hospital. This aims to facilitate more patient-interaction opportunities.

Additionally, pharmacists can help ease doctors’ workloads and stress levels by helping with medication reviews and taking on a larger role in drug prescription. This could help to prevent potential prescription errors by doctors, who can only afford to spend about five out of the standard 20 minutes to evaluate a patient’s medical history amidst their busy schedules. Pharmacists could review and summarize key points in a patient’s medical history for a doctor’s reference to ensure better service and quality of care.

Pharmacists can also be more involved in conducting consultations with patients between follow-ups with doctors, and helping to monitor medication compliance.

According to a survey released by the Society of Hospital Pharmacists in November 2014, 25% of patients questioned in public hospitals were non-compliant to instructions regarding medication. "People stop taking medication as they fear the side effects, and they are also not clear about the drug's functions," William Chun-Ming Chui, the society's president, said.

Through consultations with patients and medication inspection, pharmacists can help prevent patients from suffering possible complications and deterioration due to poor medication adherence, consequently easing the stress and workload of doctors in the community. MIMS

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