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KAI RYSSDAL: The chain of health care professionals is a long one. From the doctors who do those weight-loss surgeries to anesthetists and nurses and pharmacists. There's a growing shortage of people trained to make sure we get the right medicines in our prescription bottles. Colleges in Tennessee have stepped up to fill the gap, but Blake Farmer reports that's fueling worries about another shortage.
Blake Farmer: Ricci Lynn wears the classic white smock to work everyday in this family-owned drug store. A "'Good Neighbor Pharmacy" logo is embroidered on his breast pocket. Lynn fills the prescription for one of his regulars.
RICCI LYNN: Is it time for all the rest of 'em? You need all of 'em?
CUSTOMER: Oh, yeah. I need the Plavix too.
Lynn does just about everything here. He counts the pills, answers the phone and files the paperwork. He's been working in this shop all his life. He's in his late 50s now, but he gets unsolicited job offers every week.
LYNN: It's a recruiter calling to see if there's anybody here to offer me a job.
Recruiters are after Lynn because in hospitals and retail stores around the country there aren't enough pharmacists to go around.
Baeteena Black is director of the Tennessee Pharmacist Association. She says the nationwide shortage can be traced back to the 1980s when the industry's accreditation body clamped down on enrollment.
BAETEENA BLACK: That was based on a projection in the past that we weren't going to need as many pharmacists so we shouldn't over-educate pharmacists.
Jack Bovender wonders if that accrediation body was on something when it made those projections. He's chairman of Nashville-based hospital operator HCA. Bovender points to more recent surveys that say the industry will need 160,000 new pharmacists over the next 10 years.
JACK BOVENDER: As this baby-boom generation is aging and will need more healthcare, the majority of the professions in healthcare are themselves filled by baby boomers who will be retiring.
Universities all around the country are opening or expanding pharmacy schools to train new druggists. But it's in Tennessee that colleges are really falling all over themselves to meet the increased demand. HCA is partnering with Belmont University in Nashville to open a pharmacy school by next fall. Lipscomb University, just two miles down the road from Belmont, unveiled its plans for a pharmacy school late last year. Just west of Nashville, faculty members at Union University approved plans for a pharmacy school there in May.
Baeteena Black says Tennessee will go from one to five schools of pharmacy in a matter of three years.
BLACK: If you're going to ask me about are we going to need all of the students that could potentially be trained in these colleges, I think that question is yet to be answered.
Black worries that as more schools open, standards could fall. But she says a more immediate problem is finding people to teach all those prospective pharmacists.
BLACK: If you go and you talk to the people who accredit colleges of pharmacy, they'll tell you, just as acute as the shortage or pharmacists is the shortage of pharmacy faculty.
To make up the shortfall, schools are poaching from the industry and from other colleges.
ROGER DAVIS: There is a shortage nationwide of over 400 faculty positions.
That's Roger Davis, the new dean of pharmacy at Lipscomb. He says the pool of teachers is small, and like many working pharmacists, they're not getting any younger.
DAVIS: A lot of the faculty in existing colleges of pharmacy are within retirement age.
Pharmacy schools around the country are facing the same challenge: How to inject new blood into an industry that's expected to grow sharply in the coming years. Tennessee colleges, in particular, are making big bets on projections of an acute need for pharmacists. They hope the forecasts are real, or else the healthcare sector is in for an overdose courtesy of eager Tennessee schools.
In Nashville, I'm Blake Farmer for Marketplace.