Pharmacy technicians provide technical assistance for pharmacists and work under their direct supervision. They usually work in chain or independent drug stores, hospitals, community ambulatory care centers, home health care agencies, nursing homes, and the pharmaceutical industry. They perform a wide range of technical support functions and tasks related to the pharmacy profession. They maintain patient records; count, package, and label medication doses; prepare and distribute sterile products; and fill and dispense routine orders for stock supplies such as over-the-counter products. There are approximately 258,000 pharmacy technicians employed in the United States.
Pharmacy Technician Career History
Professionally trained pharmacy technicians have assisted pharmacists since the 1950s. In recent years, the role of the pharmacist has shifted and evolved away from standard dispensing to consultation, restricting the time actually spent dispensing medication. Pharmacy technicians have filled this gap, enjoying a significant increase in duties and responsibilities, and becoming an even more integral part of the pharmaceutical health care team.
Pharmacy Technician Job Description
The roles of the pharmacist and pharmacy technician expanded greatly in the 1990s. The pharmacist’s primary responsibility is to ensure that medications are used safely and effectively through clinical patient counseling and monitoring. In order to provide the highest quality of pharmaceutical care, pharmacists now focus on providing clinical services. As a result, pharmacy technicians’ duties have evolved into a more specialized role known as pharmacy technology. Pharmacy technicians perform more of the manipulative functions associated with dispensing prescriptions. Their primary duties are drug-product preparation and distribution, but they are also concerned with the control of drug products. Technicians assemble, prepare, and deliver requested medication. Technicians are responsible for record keeping, and they record drug-related information on specified forms, frequently doing this part of the work on computers. Depending on a technician’s experience, he or she may order pharmaceuticals and take inventory of controlled substances, such as Valium and Ritalin.
Technicians who work in hospitals have the most varied responsibilities of all pharmacy technicians. In a hospital, technicians fill total parenteral nutrition preparations and standard and chemotherapy IVs (intravenous solutions) for patients under doctors’ orders. Other duties that a hospital pharmacy technician may be required to do include filling “stat,” or immediate, orders and delivering them; preparing special emergency carts stocked with medications; and monitoring defibrillators and resuscitation equipment. In an emergency, pharmacy technicians respond with doctors and nurses, rushing the cart and other equipment to the emergency site. They also keep legal records of the events that occur during an emergency. Technicians work in the hospital’s outpatient pharmacy, which is similar to a commercial drugstore, and assist the pharmacist in dispensing medication.
Tamara Britton works as a technician in a hospital. Because the hospital pharmacy is open 24 hours a day, Tamara has worked all three shifts. Her work involves using a computer to create labels for large IV bags and “piggybacks” (small-volume IV bags). She stacks the IVs on carts, then delivers them to the appropriate nurse stations. She also delivers medications through a process known as “tubing and shagging.” Two “tubes,” or lines, (similar to those at a bank’s drive-through) run through the entire hospital to every nurse unit. “Shagging” is the process of placing the nurse unit’s medications in baggies; the meds are then shot through the tubes to the proper units. Tamara also prepares drug carts with the aid of a RxOBOT; this robotic arm is in a glassed-off room, and fills the drawers of the carts with the correct medication for individual patients. Britton places coded labels on the drawers of the carts. She explains, “I put the drawers with labels facing Robota (we named her) and a conveyor belt takes them in the room for Robota to fill with all of the patients’ existing meds for the day. The tray, after filling, drops down to a lower conveyor belt that brings the drawer back to me, which I replace in the cart.”
As their roles increase, trained technicians have become more specialized. Some specialized types of pharmacy technicians include narcotics control pharmacy technicians, operating room pharmacy technicians, emergency room pharmacy technicians, nuclear pharmacy technicians, and home health care pharmacy technicians. Specially trained pharmacy technicians are also employed as data entry technicians, lead technicians, supervisors, and technician managers.
Pharmacy Technician Career Requirements
You should take courses in mathematics and science (especially chemistry and biology), because you will be dealing with patient records and drug dosages. Health classes can help you get a basic understanding of the health care industry and various medical treatments. Take English and speech classes to help you develop your writing and communication skills. You will be using a computer a lot to maintain records and prepare labels, so take courses in computer fundamentals.
In the past, pharmacy technicians received most of their training on the job in hospital and community pharmacy-training programs. Since technician functions and duties have changed greatly in recent years, most pharmacy technicians today receive their education through formal training programs offered through community colleges, vocational/ technical schools, hospital community pharmacies, and government programs throughout the United States. Program length usually ranges from six months to two years, and leads to a certificate, diploma, or associate’s degree in pharmacy technology. A high school diploma usually is required for entry into a training program. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) is the national accrediting organization for pharmacy technician training programs. ASHP can provide you with information on approved programs across the country (see address at end of this article).
In a pharmacy technician training program, you will receive classroom instruction and participate in supervised clinical apprenticeships in health institutions and community pharmacies. Courses include introduction to pharmacy and health care systems, pharmacy laws and ethics, medical terminology, chemistry, and microbiology. Most pharmacy technicians continue their education even after their formal training ends by reading professional journals and attending training or informational seminars, lectures, review sessions, and audiovisual presentations.
Certification or Licensing
At least three states license pharmacy technicians and all 50 states have adopted, the National Pharmacy Technician Certification Examination, a written, standardized test for voluntary certification of technicians. Those who pass the test can use the certified pharmacy technician designation. Some states, including Texas and Louisiana, require certification of pharmacy technicians. To receive certification from the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board, you will be tested on such subjects as the top 200 drugs in use by the medical profession. After receiving certification, you will be required to complete 20 hours of continuing education every two years as part of the qualifications for recertification. Even though it is not required in every state, certification is recommended to enhance your credentials, demonstrate to employers your commitment to the profession, and possibly qualify you for higher pay.
You must be precision-minded, honest, and mature as you are depended on for accuracy and high levels of quality control, especially in hospitals. “I pay attention to details,” Tamara Britton says, “and try to catch all my own mistakes before a pharmacist checks my work.” You need good communications skills in order to successfully interact with pharmacists, supervisors, and other technicians. You must be able to follow written and oral instructions precisely because a wide variety of people, including physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and patients, rely on your actions. You also need some computer aptitude in order to effectively record pharmaceutical data.
Exploring Pharmacy Technician Career
Ask your school’s guidance or career counselor to help you arrange for a pharmacy technician to talk to a group of students interested in this career. Your counselor may also be able to help you arrange for an informational interview with a pharmacy technician. During such an interview you will meet one-on-one with the technician and ask him or her about the work. Volunteer work at a local hospital or nursing home will provide you with an excellent opportunity to be in an environment similar to the one in which many professional technicians work. As a volunteer, you can hone your communication skills and learn about medical settings by interacting with both patients and medical staff. You may even have the opportunity to meet and talk with pharmacy technicians. Finally, look for a part-time or summer job at a local retail pharmacy. Although your duties may be limited to stocking the shelves, working the cash register, or making deliveries, you will still gain valuable experience by working in this environment and interacting with trained pharmacists and technicians. By doing this, you may even be able to find a mentor who is willing to give you advice about education and the pharmacy technician career.
Approximately 258,000 pharmacy technicians are employed in the United States. Most opportunities for pharmacy technicians are in retail. According to the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, there are approximately 35,500 pharmacies operated by traditional chain pharmacy companies and supermarkets, as well as nearly 19,000 independent pharmacies. Technicians also work in hospitals and long-term care facilities as well as in clinics at military bases, prisons, and colleges. Technicians are also finding work with home health care agencies, mail-order and Internet pharmacies, and with the federal government.
In some cases you may be able to pursue education and certification while employed as a pharmacy technician. Some chain drugstores pay the certification fees for their techs and also reward certified techs with higher hourly pay. This practice will probably increase—industry experts predict a need for pharmacists and technicians as more chain drugstores open across the country, and more pharmacies offer 24-hour service.
Pharmacy technicians often are hired by the hospital or agency where they interned. If you don’t find employment this way, you can use employment agencies or newspaper ads to help locate job openings. Tamara Brit-ton found her hospital job in the classifieds. “There was an ad that said ‘use your data entry skills and become a pharmacy technician.’ They tested me on data entry and then interviewed me and gave me the job. They trained me on all I needed to know to do the job.”
Depending on where they are employed, technicians may direct or instruct newer pharmacy technicians, make schedules, or move to purchasing or computer work. Some hospitals have a variety of tech designations, based on experience and responsibility, with a corresponding increase in pay. Some pharmacy techs return to school to pursue a degree in pharmacy.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, pharmacy technicians had median annual earnings of $24,390 in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent of technicians earned less than $17,100, while the highest paid 10 percent made $35,150 or more. Pharmacy technicians earned the following median salaries in 2005 by type of employer: health and personal care stores, $23,920; general medical and surgical hospitals, $28,310; grocery stores, $25,530; department stores, $23,400; and other general merchandise stores, $24,830.
Benefits that technicians receive depend on their employers but generally include medical and dental insurance, retirement savings plans, and paid sick, personal, and vacation days.
Pharmacy technicians work in clean, well-lit, pleasant, and professional surroundings. They may wear scrubs or other uniforms in hospitals, especially in the IV room. In a retail drugstore, a technician may be allowed to wear casual clothing along with a smock. Most pharmacy settings are extremely busy, especially hospital and retail. “I feel like I’m part of a system,” Tamara Britton says, “to help the sick get better and maybe keep people from dying.” The job of pharmacy technician, like any other occupation that demands skill, speed, and accuracy, can be stressful. Because most hospitals, nursing homes, health care centers, and retail pharmacies are open between 16 and 24 hours a day, multiple shifts, weekend, and holiday hours usually are required.
Pharmacy Technician Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor projects much faster than average employment growth for pharmacy technicians through 2014. As the role of the pharmacist shifts to consultation, more technicians will be needed to assemble and dispense medications. Furthermore, new employment avenues and responsibilities will mirror that of the expanding and evolving role of the pharmacist. A strong demand is emerging for technicians with specialized training to work in specific areas, such as emergency room and nuclear pharmacy. An increasing number of pharmacy technicians will be needed as the number of older Americans (who, on average, require more prescription medication than younger generations) continues to rise.
Those who want to work as pharmacy technicians should be aware that in the future they may need more education to gain certification because of the growing number of complex medications and new drug therapies on the market. Mechanical advances in the pharmaceutical field, such as robot-picking devices and automatic counting equipment, may eradicate some of the duties pharmacy technicians previously performed, yet there will remain a need for skilled technicians to clean and maintain such devices. Traditionally, pharmacists have been required to check the work of technicians; however, in some states, hospitals are allowing techs to check the work of other techs.