The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has contacted universities to raise concerns that all courses for the Overseas Pharmacists' Assessment Programme (OSPAP) starting in 2023 and 2024 are oversubscribed, despite workforce shortages in the sector.

Pharmacists who have qualified outside of the European Economic Area (EEA), or hold an EEA pharmacist qualification which is not a 'relevant' qualification (other than a UK-recognised pharmacist qualification), must undertake the OSPAP as part of the process of registering with the GPhC.

But all courses beginning this year and next year are already oversubscribed, meaning that overseas pharmacists yet to apply for a place are unlikely to be able to complete the qualification during this time.

The GPhC said that there was high demand for the courses, as well as applications carried over from last year.

And today at a Westminster Health Forum on the next steps for pharmacy in healthcare delivery in England, GPhC chair Gisela Abbam said it had highlighted the demand to course providers, even though it was not the regulator’s responsibility to manage the courses.

‘We are aware of the increase in demand, and we are engaging with the universities to see what can be done,’ she said.

She added that the role of pharmacy within the integrated healthcare system was ‘so important’, but that ‘they need the help in terms of workforce pressures and help in terms of infrastructure and funding to be able to continue to deliver’.

The GPhC advised overseas pharmacists looking to register in the UK to check with their preferred university about availability of the OSPAP courses before submitting an application to the GPhC.

The latest community pharmacy workforce survey, published in 2022 by Health Education England (HEE) showed that vacancy rates in the sector had doubled in the previous five years.

And a lack of access routes for overseas pharmacists could prove a problem.

According to the latest data from the 2021 census, 31.8% of pharmacists in England and Wales were born outside the UK.

Of those, 3,880 were estimated to have been born in EU countries, 375 elsewhere in Europe, 7,485 in the Middle East and Asia, 5,830 in Africa, 395 in the Americas and the Caribbean and 225 in the rest of the world including Oceania and Antarctica.

In March 2021, the Home Office added pharmacists, among several other health and social care roles to the shortage occupation list (SOL).

This came after a review, published by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), recommended that pharmacists be added to the list amid shortage concerns.

Its review of the shortage occupation list found there was a ‘national shortage in this occupation due to a decline in the number of pharmacy graduates and increasing demand for their services,’ leading to ‘recruitment difficulties’.