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There is now an urgent need for a concerted action plan to address the growing shortage of community pharmacists that, the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) believes, has the potential to impact on the accessibility of pharmacy services for patients. The IPU said it has welcomed the addition of pharmacists to the list of occupations that qualify for expedited work permits but said that while this is a welcome step, it is only a first step on what is becoming a very acute issue, especially over the peak holiday season. 

Commenting on the scale and impact of the shortage of pharmacists, IPU President Mr Dermot Twomey said: “The majority of community pharmacists surveyed by the IPU now believe there is an insufficient number of pharmacists in our healthcare system to meet patient needs. This is a dire situation which could develop and has the potential to create profound difficulties for patients, and immediate action needs to be taken to avoid this. 

“These shortages will lead to pharmacies reducing their hours, reducing their services and in some cases may result in shortened hours or temporary closures,” Mr Twomey continued. “There are currently 3,800 community pharmacists working across Ireland’s 1,900 community pharmacies. Our population is ageing and the demands on our sector are increasing.” 

Minister of State Damien English recently announced the addition of pharmacists to the Critical Skills Occupation List, allowing for faster access to work permits. Mr Twomey welcomed the announcement. “This is an important official recognition that community pharmacists are now in short supply. After significant IPU engagement with Government and across the political spectrum, we are pleased that this change has been made. This will help pharmacies to attract and recruit pharmacists from non-EU countries. 

“While this change is very welcome, it is not designed to address the root causes of the shortage,” he cautioned. “The causes are noticeably clear — we are simply not training enough pharmacists in this country. There are insufficient third-level places to meet the demands of the sector and little has been done to address this. 

“There also needs to be put in place a comprehensive plan which utilises fully the clinical skills of our profession in order to attract young graduates to community pharmacy. 

“In addition, the profession is being strangled by red tape and bureaucracy. This is unfortunately leading to an exodus of young well-educated community pharmacists. Filling out forms that provide no benefit to the patient is now a large part of the pharmacist’s day. Were the HSE to address this, it would make the profession more attractive and be an instant boost to retention.” 

With multiple causes for the shortage of pharmacists and the responsibility for addressing them residing across the public sector, the IPU is now calling for an action plan to be developed and implemented. This plan, the IPU argues, should include the Departments of Health, higher education and enterprise, as well agencies such as the HSE, HPRA, and PSI. 

“What is needed in the medium-term,” Mr Twomey suggested, is “a clear pathway to get us to a level where an ample number of pharmacists are being educated each year. But before that is feasible, we need to see concerted action to facilitate improved efficiencies within the sector and a reduction in red tape.”