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50+: Live Better, Longer

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A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Rx for Disaster?

The Effect on You

Aside from having to wait longer to get a prescription filled, fewer pharmacists means more overworked pharmacists, which can lead to errors. The National Institute of Medicine last year estimated that errors are made on about 4% of the nation's prescriptions -- a total of 120 million mistakes a year.

Other research suggests the rate of prescription errors increases after a pharmacist fills more than 24 prescriptions an hour. The National Pharmacist Association recommends pharmacists fill no more than 15 prescriptions an hour, but that rate is routinely exceeded, with some pharmacists filling as many as 29 an hour.

Topping the prescription-pad list of reasons for the shortage of pharmacists, experts say, is an increased demand for medications.

"I am going to stop saying 'shortage' and begin referring to it as an excessive demand," says Maine. "That really is what is happening here: an increased demand for processing prescriptions."

Roberts agrees.

"The demand has really gone gangbuster," he says. "In 1992 there were approximately two billion prescriptions dispensed on an outpatient basis; by 1999 it had risen to three billion and is expected to increase to four billion by 2005. I must tell you, we have not seen an increase even approaching that in terms of infrastructure for pharmaceutical distribution."

The Ever-Increasing Demand

Why the boom? The baby boom chiefly, says Roberts, as members of that needy, numerous generation are reaching the age of peak consumption of health services.

Coupled with that, more medications are out there to treat diseases -- including chronic ailments requiring multiple drugs, like AIDS, and conditions like erectile dysfunction that, before Viagra, really had no treatment. The final factor is the explosion of direct-to-consumer advertising that prompts well-informed patients to walk into their doctor's office and demand a prescription.

And of course, people are living longer. "What's keeping them alive?" asks Roberts. "It's longer living through chemicals."

On the other side of the equation is the nationwide shift from a five-year bachelor's degree in pharmacy to the six-year doctor of pharmacy degree. This means some may skip an advanced degree in pharmacy in favor of, say, a business or law degree.

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