Blimey. Two blogs in a week? I must be ill…

A couple of tweets today got me thinking again about the recent decision not to cap pharmacy student numbers.  As you all know the joint consultation last year by HEFCE and HEE showed most of the 180 or so respondents wanted some kind of limit on student numbers and only a minority opposed the cap, but minister for universities, science and cities Greg Clark MP chose instead to let the market dictate in line with the wider government policy to remove student number controls wherever possible, responding there’s “no need to consider further options for a pharmacy number control”.

So why waste all that resource and effort on three years of consultation and reporting? Formally it’s because a cap didn’t fit with the government’s “objectives for pharmacy” although I’ve yet to see any objectives written down, SMART or otherwise (and if the reserved offerings in NHS England’s Five Year Forward View are an indication of what’s in store then we’re in trouble).  In reality then what makes pharmacy so different to other capped professions like medicine and dentistry? My money is, of course, on money.

I’m a constant annoyance to many in referring to our largest sector as ‘retail’ but I know deep-down you all know it’s true. Between them the four largest chains employ about 100,000 people in the UK with supermarkets adding about 1000 pharmacies to that figure; with about 27,000 pharmacists working in retail this is not an insignificant proportion of high-cost staff at a time when returns from dispensing are flat and income from additional services inconsistent.  Since the demise of the glorious X-files I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I recall the outcome of the PDA’s application for a declaration of incompatibility against Boots, which at the last minute surprisingly swung Boots’ way following ‘the governments direct representations at the hearing’. I’ll leave it to you to decide if there are any parallels here.

So what next? Start telling under-grads not to expect to become a pharmacist? Pin our trust in the new five-year integrated course? Hope that the NHS will find the money to redeploy pharmacists into new and relatively unproven roles? Or tell them their best bet is to join academia in advance of the explosion of new schools of pharmacy?

It’s time to put our thinking caps on.

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