Hong Kong pharmacists struggle to find jobs amid waning demand and graduate surplus

Economic downturn has contributed to pharmacies closing down or converting to medicine shops

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 January, 2017, 9:01am

When 27-year-old Lee returned to Hong Kong in 2014 with high hopes of becoming a pharmacist after graduating from university in Britain, she faced a harsh reality – she could not find a job.

Lee, who prefers not to disclose her full name, is among a generation of Hong Kong pharmacists currently facing difficulties in finding work, as the city is set to face a surplus of 80 such professionals annually.

This is partly due to limited hiring in public hospitals and fewer pharmacies surviving amid the economic downturn.

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The trend echoes a government study on health care manpower in the city, which is expected to be released by the first half of the year. One of the projections of the paper – pharmacists are likely to be the only practitioners in ­excess among 13 health care professions in the coming decade.

“I was pretty frustrated when I came back as no one was hiring,” Lee said.

The University of Manchester graduate applied for internships in both hospitals and pharmacies, but was unsuccessful.

After six months of hunting, she settled for a role in a pharmaceutical firm that did not require a pharmacy degree.

“In Hong Kong it is harder to be admitted into pharmacy than medicine, and I thought the future would be promising. But it seemed to be the opposite of that after graduation,” she said.

Iris Chang Yee-man, head of external affairs for the Practising Pharmacists Association, said the surplus in pharmacists surfaced two years ago when job vacancies could not match the growth of new entrants into the industry.

“Because of the economic downturn, some pharmacies converted into medicine shops that didn’t require pharmacists. Some also closed down due to rising rents,” Chang said.

Unlike pharmacies, medicine stores can only sell common drugs but not prescription ones.

Lau Oi-kwok from the General Chamber of Pharmacy said the number of pharmacies has dropped by about 20 per cent since early last year, from 600 outlets during the peak period to about 550 now.

This was in spite of an uptick in local pharmacy student quotas in recent years – Chinese University increased its annual intake from 30 to 55 in the academic year 2012/2013, bringing the total number of local graduates to about 80.

Together with returning pharmacists trained overseas, the city saw up to 150 people joining the 2,000-strong profession annually.

Added to that, the government also further increased the number of local training places for pharmacists to 90 since the academic year 2016/2017.

William Chui Chun-ming from the Society of Hospital Pharmacists criticised the annual intake of the Hospital Authority – which recruited 30 new pharmacists – as insufficient.

“Some graduates have switched to work in the insurance sector or public relations agencies,” Chang from the Practising Pharmacists Association added.

While Chang suggested that the government freeze quotas of pharmacy programmes amid the weak market demand, both her and Chui believed pharmacists could be involved more in the patient care process to solve the surplus problem.

Chui suggested introducing ward pharmacists – who are available in intensive care units and oncology wards – to every ward in hospitals.

“They can share the duties of medication review and management ... and prepare prescriptions for patients during admission or discharge,” he said, adding that this could also help reduce the workload of doctors.

The Hospital Authority however said more pharmacists have been hired in recent years with the increase in the number of hospital beds, including an extension of pharmacy service hours.

As of November 30 last year, 587 pharmacists are working under the authority.

A spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau said that extra training places would provide a steady supply of local pharmacists and would also enhance services such as clinical pharmacy in public hospitals.

The government will continue to monitor the profession and development of the sector.