Sarika Tirumalasetty, who will qualify as a pharmacist this summer, will head for work at the Chennai offices of iLink Systems, a Seattle, US-based software company specializing in health-care and physician services, in July this year.
The 21-year-old, final-year student of the Bachelor’s course in pharmacy at Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS), Pilani, has no plan to work for any of India’s upcoming drugstore chains. Tirumalasetty is not alone; all of her 49 classmates are headed to workplaces—software companies, drug makers and business process outsourcing firms—that are as far removed from pharmacies as can be.
The reasons for disenchantment among B.Pharm graduates are many and could spell serious shortages, at least in the short run, for the 3,000-plus new stores that are to be set up by existing players as well as new entrants over the next five years. The licensing rules of Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, require that every retail medicine store in the country be run by a qualified pharmacist or employ one.
“With the advent of retail pharmacies, the demand for pharmacists will be sky-high,” says consultant Ernst & Young’s head of health practice Utkarsh Palnitkar, who estimates the demand for people with such qualifications—graduate or post-graduate degrees and diploma holders—will double to roughly two lakh annually in five years.
Compare that with the supply: according to the All India Council for Technical Education, about 445 pharmacy degree colleges and 30 post-graduate institutions turn out a tad less than 25,000 every year.
Less than a fifth of B.Pharm graduates join work at a drugstore, says B. Suresh of Pharmacy Council of India, a body that pharmacists have to be registered with to be able to practise in the country. And, the uptake among post-graduates is lower: just one in 100 of Master’s-degree holders join medicine retail chains.
Apollo Pharmacy—currently the largest Indian chain with 350 stores employing 750 pharmacists—which plans to open 900 stores in three years, has woken up to the problem. “The availability of a pharmacist was not as challenging as it has become now with multiple-branded pharmacy chains entering the market,” says Ashvani Srivastava, president of strategic alliances, Apollo Hospitals, the parent company of the drugstore chain.
Morepen Laboratories wants to add 70 ‘Lifespring’ retail stores in the same period while newest entrant Fortis HealthWorld will set up 1,000 stores in the next five years. Lifetime Healthcare plans to expand its drugstore chain more than fivefold to nearly 240 in a year. Add to this Pantaloon Retail’s and Mukesh Ambani-promoted Reliance Industries’ intentions to enter the segment, and it is clear that India needs a lot more pharmacists manning drugstores than those who seem willing to join the sector.
Salaries, as an inevitable fallout, have been on the rise. Admits Srivastava: “There is pressure on offering higher pay package and entry-level salaries have increased 100% in the last two years.” Salaries for experienced pharmacists working at drug chains in big cities like New Delhi today are between Rs8,000 and Rs10,000 a month which, industry insiders expect, will rise further.
The low salaries for retail pharmacists—Rs2,000-2,500 for an entry-level diploma holder and double the sum for a Bachelor’s-degree holder—has pushed most pharmacy students to manufacturing, quality control and marketing jobs with top drug makers or even in support or research roles at software and back-office service companies.
Information technology majors such as Wipro, Satyam Computer and Cognizant Technologies regularly hire pharmacy students at BITS, Pilani, paying handsomely. Tirumalasetty, for instance, is being hired at nearly Rs27,000 a month. A student of the post-graduate class has been hired by GlaxoSmithKline for an annual package of Rs9 lakh.
Some see the shortage of pharmacy professionals as a short-term phenomenon. “Pharmacy as a career option will have a lot more takers as opportunities expand, but there will be no dearth per se as we have enough pharmacy colleges,” Fortis HealthWorld’s chief executive Ashish Pandit says. The company hopes to hire up to 5,000 pharmacists in five years, most of them freshers. Morepen Labs’ chairman reckons the shortages will be a temporary “one-two year transition period”.
Aparna Kalra contributed to this story.