It's a rough time for students about to graduate into an uncertain job market, but Mariel Sinkov, Clara Song and Mary Ridge are sitting pretty - or rather standing proudly, in white lab coats, behind a pharmacy counter.
The women are in their fourth and final year at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and they are already being swamped with calls from pharmacies, hospitals and companies eager to pay them $80,000 or more for their skills. In a slowing economy, the demand for pharmacists remains a constant, as dependable as the common cold.
"I've got several interviews at pharmaceutical companies and several offers from community pharmacies," said Song, 29, at the model retail pharmacy inside the school on West Baltimore Street. "They're really hurting out there."
Nationwide, there's a shortage of more than 20,000 pharmacists, thanks to the rise in prescription drug use and the aging of America, among other factors. After years of declining interest in the pharmacy field, students might finally be taking notice.
The entering class at the University of Maryland this fall is 131 strong - 11 students more than the school was expecting and 23 more than the entering class last year. About 80 percent of applicants accepted to the school last spring took up the offer, a 10 percent increase from past years.
The school attributes the higher enrollment to an aggressive recruiting effort launched a few years ago that has sent current and former students to area high schools and colleges to pitch the profession. And administrators expect that interest will continue to grow as the recession sends people looking for stable careers.
Interest also appears to be perking up nationally. After five years of double-digit percentage declines in applications, the country's 83 pharmacy schools saw a small increase last year, according to their national association.
But pharmacy school administrators in Maryland and elsewhere admit that they remain a long way from closing a gap that some say poses a serious risk to the health care system. "We're doing our part, but clearly the pharmacist shortage is not going to be solved by a single institution," said Russell DiGate, Maryland's acting dean.
The explanation for the pharmacist demand can be found in home medicine cabinets nationwide. As researchers develop new medications, HMOs seize on them as cheaper alternatives to hospital care and companies spend billions to market these drugs. So prescription drug use has boomed.
Three billion prescriptions were sold in the United States last year, up from 2 billion in 1990, according to Philip Schneider, a spokesman for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. With those over age 65 now buying a third of all prescription drugs, that's expected to increase to 4 billion by 2005 as the population ages.
Meanwhile drug retailers, chain stores and independents, are expanding to handle the increased sales. Last year, the state authorized 157 new pharmacies, for a total of 1,340 statewide. Nationwide, Schneider said, there are about 6,500 pharmacist openings in chain stores, which control about 70 percent of the retail market.
Added to that, there is growing competition for pharmacists outside the retail drugstore, from hospitals, nursing homes, the military and other institutional settings, and pharmaceutical companies and government labs.
At the University of Maryland, only a third of recent graduates have taken jobs at chain stores; a decade ago, 70 percent did. Now, most graduating pharmacists are going to hospitals, independents and residencies in specialty fields, said Robert Beardsley, the school's dean of student affairs.
That breadth of opportunities is a reason for the shortage, but it's also a potential selling point for the profession, say administrators. Too many people still think pharmacists do no more than follow the scribbled instructions of physicians, they say.
"We're trying to change the perception," said Beardsley. "People don't know what we do. We don't have our own TV show. We're behind the scenes at hospitals and nursing homes, and people don't see that."
Even at retail drugstores, Beardsley said, high-tech dispensing machines and technicians are freeing up pharmacists for broader responsibilities. The duties are reflected in the school's curriculum: In addition to their many chemistry courses, students learn how to counsel diabetes and asthma sufferers, give vaccinations, and prevent bad interactions between customers' medications.
In one recent lecture, associate professor Magaly Rodriguez de Bittner instructed students on the need to be sensitive to the different backgrounds of patients and customers. Some ethnic groups will require higher dosages of some drugs, she said; others might resist taking medications.
"It's extremely important to get to know patients," she said. "We need to start dealing with patients in the context of their culture."