Turning To Technology To Deal with The Nationwide Shortage of Pharmacy Technicians

Ken Perez

By Ken Perez, vice president of healthcare policy and government affairs, Omnicell, Inc.

Although they are usually the first person patients see when they walk into a pharmacy, the important roles that pharmacy technicians play are not well understood by the public.

How pharmacy technicians support patient care is becoming more evident as the United States is experiencing a widespread shortage of pharmacy technicians. Last month, I met with a dozen chief pharmacy officers from leading hospitals and health systems from across the nation, and a large majority of them said they were struggling to staff enough pharmacy technicians. Similarly, a nationwide survey conducted in late May by the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) found that nearly 90% of the survey’s 278 respondents said they couldn’t find pharmacy technicians.1

What’s causing the shortage? It’s primarily due to externalities. The pharmacy technician shortage is part of the broader problem affecting entry-level hiring across all industries—for various reasons, many people are reluctant to return to work.

Consequently, many large corporations are offering new workers unprecedentedly high starting hourly wages. Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, recently raised its hourly pay for more than 565,000 store workers by at least $1, bringing the chain’s U.S. average hourly wage to $16.40.2 Also, Amazon, the nation’s second-largest private employer, also recently increased its average starting wage to more than $18 an hour, and it announced plans to hire 125,000 warehouse and transportation workers.3 In contrast, the U.S. average hourly wage for pharmacy technicians is approximately $15.

In response, many pharmacies have entered the wage-and-benefits war. More than 72% of the NCPA survey’s respondents said that they’re raising wages to attract workers, 56% are offering more flexible work hours, and more than 20% care increasing benefits.4

Will this “fight fire with fire” strategy work for pharmacies? Unfortunately, they are limited in their ability to try to match other industries’ wages. Payer reimbursements—which are controlled by pharmacy benefit managers—have been declining for years, contributing to the closure of nearly 10,000 community pharmacies between 2009 and 2015.5 Moreover, as of the second quarter of this year, the average pharmacy’s pretax profit margin was just 2.24%, leaving little or no room for increasing wages.6

Faced with the dual challenges of the prospect of an upward wage spiral and continued reimbursement pressure, pharmacies need to turn to technology to optimize the use of existing staff. Many labor-intensive tasks can be automated, freeing up pharmacy technicians’ time for more patient-engaging activities. Ultimately, integrating technologies such as automation, robotics and data intelligence could transform the roles of pharmacy technicians as well as pharmacists, advancing the nature of their work and enhancing their career paths, which could in turn enable pharmacies to be more successful in attracting and retaining workers.

Footnotes

  1. Business Insider, “4 in 5 local pharmacies can’t find enough workers to deliver prescriptions and run the cash register, according to an industry report,” accessed Oct. 11, 2021.
  1. Thomas, Lauren, “Walmart hikes hourly pay by $1 for more than 550,000 workers ahead of the holidays,” Sept. 2, 2021.
  1. Dastin, Jeffrey, “Amazon hikes average U.S. starting pay to $18, hires for 125,000 jobs,” Sept. 14, 2021.
  1. Business Insider, loc. cit.
  1. Knoer, Scott J., “Payment reform,” Journal of the American Pharmacists Association, March 1, 2021.
  1. CSIMarket.com, “Pharmacy Services & Retail Drugstore Industry Profitability,” accessed Oct. 11, 2021.

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