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Could technology be the answer to the current workforce challenges in retail pharmacy?


Without doubt one of the biggest issues facing community pharmacy right now is staffing challenges. It’s a problem that is impacting pharmacies across the UK. In this blog Centred Solution’s Managing Director and pharmacist, Paul O’Hanlon, explains why he believes technology can play a crucial role in addressing the problem.
Editor: PharmiWeb Editor Last Updated: 08-Apr-2022

The figures speak for themselves. In 2019 the first national workforce survey in Wales showed a vacancy rate of 6% for pharmacy[1]. A year later a similar survey in Scotland saw double that with a vacancy rate of 12%[2]. In England a workforce report from Health Education England showed the pharmacy vacancy rate had doubled to 8% in just four years[3]. Further research from the Company Chemist’ Association found that a shortage of over 3000 community pharmacists had developed in England over the past five years[4]. The scale of the shortage is such a concern that last year pharmacists were added to the Home Office’s occupation shortage list.

The impact of this shortfall is far reaching for both staff and patients and it places huge amounts of pressure on a profession that is already being expected to deliver more for less. Last year respondents to the Pharmaceutical Journal’s salary and job satisfaction survey cited lack of staff as a barrier to being able to do their job properly and worryingly, over 80% of pharmacy technicians responding to the 2021 C+D salary survey said staffing levels were “either quite low or so low it is dangerous”[5]. Towards the end of 2021 many pharmacy contractors reported that increased staff shortages were leading to difficulties maintaining services and temporary closures in some instances. 

Soaring costs

In a desperate bid to maintain services, many pharmacies have turned to locum pharmacists to plug the gap, only to find the rise in demand has significantly pushed up locum costs. The C+D salary survey indicated a steep rise in locum rates in 2021, with rates increasing by an average of £6 per hour. Over 56% of locums who responded said their salary had increased in the 12 months leading up to the survey[6]. It’s no surprise – the rules of supply and demand dictate that when there is increased competition for recruitment and a shrinking pool of applicants, the costs of employment will escalate.

Reasons cited for the workforce shortfall include:

  • A recruitment drive of pharmacists into primary care networks
  • An increase in part-time working, in some cases because of exhaustion
  • An increased demand for services during Covid 19 pandemic
  • A reduction of European Economic Area (EEA) pharmacists registering in the UK since Brexit
  • Broader portfolio working

Could technology be the answer?

It goes without saying that the current situation is not sustainable, a solution is needed and soon. Pharmacy bodies have called for increased investment.  In fact, earlier this month the PSNC asked for data on workforce pressures to use as evidence in the negotiations for the fourth year of the five year funding contract. There have also been discussions around improved collaboration across primary care and improved promotion of pharmacy as a career with incentives for undergraduates to study pharmacy.

There’s just one problem, none of these solutions are a quick fix. With no clear plan or timeline in place to address the issues there is one option that is available to pharmacies right now. It’s a solution that could not only address workforce shortages by freeing up staff time, it could also improve staff satisfaction and retention rates by allowing pharmacists to practice at the top of their clinical licence.

The importance of automation for pharmacies has never been greater. On top of the safety and efficiency benefits, using technology allows pharmacists to optimise staff efficiency and mitigate workforce shortages. There is technology that is scalable and available right now that would free up vital staff time from back office, manual tasks so time can be better spent on patient care and revenue-generating services.

Freeing up staff time for patient care

Automating your repeat prescription dispensing business with Centred Solutions FLOWRx technology will release pharmacy staff time across pharmacies. This means pharmacy staff have more time available to support patients and provide services which can generate revenue, enabling business growth.

This new solution has already been embraced by a number of early-adopter pharmacies of varying sizes and they have quickly seen the benefits. Staff in pharmacies no longer need to spend significant hours dispensing repeat prescriptions. Instead they receive totes straight from the pharmacy hub with prescriptions bagged, labelled and ready to collect by patients. Pharmacies have been enabled to deliver more services without the need to recruit additional members of staff. This shift in focus results in a more rewarding role for front line staff in the branches, increasing engagement and retention.

The C+D salary survey 2021 highlighted the fact that pharmacy staff were feeling the effects of increased workload. Many blamed a “lack of staff” or failure to replace staff as contributing factors. Retail pharmacy is in crisis and we have to look at new ways of working. The government’s promise to recruit 7,000 primary care network pharmacists by 2024 [7] isn’t going to improve the situation on the ground. If anything it has the potential to make it worse. However, a shift in the pharmacy operating model would. Technology needs to be at the heart of that shift if pharmacy is to deliver more whilst empowering existing staff and safeguarding

[1] Wales Community Workforce Survey 2019 – HEIW

[2] RPS Scotland Pharmacy Workforce Briefing -

[3] Health Education England Community Pharmacy Workforce Survey 2021,7PCVL,QZXL6D,VEFN8,1

[4] CCA Review of Community Pharmacy Workforce in England

[5] C&D Salary Survey 2021

[6] C&D Salary Survey 2021

[7] NHS Long Term Plan and GP 5 year contractual framework.