Pharmacy Career Information
P harmacy schools are part of the backbone of modern healthcare. The use of medicinal drugs (also known as pharmaceuticals) is one of the primary methods for treating medical patients and improving one's quality of life. But while medications enable millions of people to live better lives, they can also cause injury, illness, or death when mishandled.
That's why it is so critical that the people who work in pharmacies know what they
are doing (and why they are doing it).
Pharmacy schools train conscientious students for careers as either pharmacists or pharmacy technicians. As pharmacy technology and prescription drugs change and get more complex, education from a quality pharmacy school becomes even more essential.
What is a Pharmacy Technician?
Pharmacists are responsible for ensuring that patients receive the proper medications at the proper dosages based on the prescriptions of doctors. But they also must advise patients of possible side effects and stay on top of any drug interactions that could cause harm to those patients. Plus, pharmacies are busy places. And dispensing medications safely requires a lot of work. Pharmacists, in most cases, need help. That's where pharmacy technicians come in. So, what is a pharmacy technician?
A pharmacy technician is:
- Someone who assists a pharmacist in the safe distribution of prescription drugs to patients and performs other duties, as necessary, related to customer service or pharmacy administration
- NOT a pharmacist
- Sometimes called a "pharmacy tech" or "pharmacy assistant" or "pharmaceutical technician"
- Someone who works under the supervision of a licensed pharmacist
What is the Difference Between a Pharmacist and a Pharmacy Technician, Pharmacy Assistant, or Pharmacy Aide?
As you ponder whether to pursue a pharmacy career, it is important to understand the differences between the various job titles you might be encountering. That's because, aside from the role of a "pharmacist," there are not yet any national standards for the titles of supportive personnel within a pharmacy.
Pharmacy roles can generally be broken down this way:
- A "pharmacist" is the professional in charge. Although a pharmacist may have a boss (such as a store owner or hospital administrator), he or she is the person with the responsibility to ensure that prescriptions get filled correctly and that patients are advised in the safe use of those medications. A pharmacist must closely supervise the other staff within a pharmacy. Pharmacists have advanced college degrees, usually having spent at least six years attaining their post-secondary educations.
- A "pharmacy technician" is supervised by a licensed pharmacist and often handles much of the "routine" work such as receiving prescription requests, counting pills, mixing medications, and labeling prescription bottles with accurate information. A pharmacy technician's work must be checked by a pharmacist before the prescriptions he or she fills can be given to a patient. Many pharmacy techs perform additional tasks such as those of a pharmacy aide (below). Pharmacy technicians vary in their education levels, but most have two years or less of formal post-secondary education, with many receiving on-the-job training only (unless they work in a state that requires formal training from an approved institution).
- The term "pharmacy assistant" is just another way of referring to either a pharmacy technician (in most cases) or a pharmacy aide.
- A "pharmacy aide" is someone who works within a pharmacy but does NOT have the authority to prepare prescriptions or mix medications. Pharmacy aides usually perform duties such as operating cash registers, stocking shelves, answering phones, and handling basic administrative functions. They do not usually have any formal training.
What Does a Pharmacy Technician Do?
The duties of pharmacy technicians can vary depending on their work settings and the regulations in their individual states. In general, though, a pharmacy technician carries out activities within a pharmacy that do not necessarily require the professional judgment of a pharmacist.
Pharmacy techs that work in retail or mail-order pharmacies have responsibilities that can include:
- Receiving prescription orders—either written ones brought in by patients or electronic ones sent in by doctors' offices
- Processing prescription orders that come by phone (not allowed in all states)
- Verifying prescription orders for completeness and accuracy
- Preparing prescriptions by retrieving, counting, pouring, weighing, measuring, and—sometimes—mixing medications
- Performing necessary mathematical calculations
- Preparing accurate labels for prescription containers
- Selecting the most appropriate containers for each prescription and affixing the correct labels to them
- Pricing the final prescriptions and getting them checked by the supervising pharmacist prior to their distribution to patients
- Assisting in the maintenance of patient records
- Preparing insurance forms
- Referring all questions about medications, dosages, side effects, and other drug- or health-related matters to the supervising pharmacist
- Stocking shelves and maintaining inventory
- Operating cash registers
- Answering phones and assisting in other customer service tasks
Pharmacy technicians who work in hospitals, nursing homes, or assisted-living facilities may share similar responsibilities to some of the above, but they also have additional duties that can include:
- Preparing sterile solutions (such as those for IVs)
- Delivering requested medications to doctors or nurses
- Preparing drugs that require extra care in handling (such as those used for treating cancer)
Where Can Pharmacy Technicians Work?
Most pharmacy technicians work in retail environments such as community pharmacies, drug stores, grocery stores, mail-order pharmacies, and general merchandise stores. In addition, a large number of pharmacy techs are employed by hospitals.
Depending on a pharmacy technician's education level, certification status, experience, and range of professional skills, opportunities exist with other types of employers as well. These can include nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, insurance companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and institutions of post-secondary learning.
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Pharmacy Technician?
The work of pharmacy technicians is not glamorous, but it can be rewarding. Like any occupation, it has its pluses and minuses. Some people enjoy it well enough that they turn it into a long-term career, while many others use it to gain experience and test the waters of the healthcare field before deciding to pursue a career as a pharmacist, or a different career in allied health.
Here are some of the downsides of being a pharmacy technician:
- Being on your feet all day can be physically demanding.
- The work is often very repetitive.
- Angry, rude, and sick customers (if you work in a retail environment) can make for stressful and emotionally challenging workdays.
- Working through hassles with insurance companies (if you work in a retail environment) is no fun.
- Making a mistake can have serious consequences for a patient, including injury, disability, or even death.
- Staff turnover in many work environments tends to be high, which can cause low morale.
- Steady hours can sometimes be hard to come by (if you work in a retail environment).
Many pharmacy technicians report having higher job satisfaction (and better pay) in hospital or long-term care settings than in retail outlets. And those who enjoy being a pharmacy technician often like it for some of the following reasons:
- It is a great way to learn about and work with a variety of interesting medications.
- Knowing that you have an important role to play and a big responsibility to do things right can lead to a great sense of accomplishment and enhanced self-worth.
- Helping and interacting with other people can provide a feeling of social connection.
- Since most pharmacies are busy places, the workdays tend to go by fast.
- Wearing a lab coat can make you look and feel important, which you are.
- It provides ample opportunity to learn how to decipher the scribbled handwriting of doctors, which is a fun trick.
What is the Average Salary for a Pharmacy Technician?
The average salary for a pharmacy technician depends greatly on work setting, education level, geographic location, and experience. This is not an occupation that will make you rich, but it can provide steady employment.
So, what does a typical pharmacy technician salary look like? Based on national estimates, typical annual wages for pharmacy technicians break down this way: *
- The bottom 10 percent earn $19,840 or less.
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $28,400.
- The top 10 percent earn $40,710 or more.
Hourly wages typically range from about $9 to $20 with most pharmacy technicians earning somewhere in the middle to lower end of that spectrum. Pharmacy tech wages tend to be higher in work environments such as hospitals and nursing homes than in retail outlets.
Pharmacists, in comparison, can earn much more. The typical annual wages of licensed pharmacists, based on national estimates, look like this: *
- The bottom 10 percent earn $82,090 or less.
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $111,570.
- The top 10 percent earn $138,620 or more.
What are the Requirements for Pharmacy Technician Jobs?
Although, in some states, you can be hired without any experience, formal training, or certification, it is critical for you to understand that many states do have specific requirements for pharmacy technician jobs. Every state is a little different in how it regulates pharmacies and those who work in them; however, pharmacy technicians are part of an occupational field that is slowly evolving toward more national standardization.
You can find the specific requirements that apply to pharmacy techs in your location by getting the information from the board of pharmacy in your state. And, in the meantime, here are some of the main points to keep in mind:
- More than 80 percent of states currently have requirements that are specific to pharmacy technicians, which can include licensure, registration, or certification. A few states require formal training as part of these requirements. And more than one-third of these states require some form of continuing education, regardless of whether or not pharmacy techs received a post-secondary education, in order to maintain official status.
- As of November 2011, professional certification is required in 18 states: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
- Some states, such as Florida, require all new pharmacy technicians to have successfully completed a formal training program approved by the state.
- The main certifying body for pharmacy techs in the U.S. is the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB).
- The PTCB offers the only certification that is currently endorsed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the American Pharmacists Association (APhA), and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP).
- In order to become a Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT), you must pass the PTCB's national exam, have at least a high school diploma (or equivalent), have no felony convictions, and have no pharmacy- or drug-related convictions.
- Many employers, once you've completed their on-the-job training, will pay for your PTCB examination.
- To maintain your certification, you must be re-certified every two years by completing 20 hours of continuing education within that period.
- The PTCB's Pharmacy Technician Certification Examination (PTCE) consists of three main testing areas: (1) assisting a pharmacist in serving patients, (2) medication distribution and inventory control, and (3) the administration and management of a pharmacy practice. These areas include mathematical calculations, pharmacy laws, and drug names and classifications.
- The NABP has issued a recommendation that all state boards of pharmacy should require that pharmacy technicians be certified by 2015. Note that this is only a recommendation, and it may or may not be enacted.
- The Institute for the Certification of Pharmacy Technicians (ICPT), now part of the National Healthcareer Association (NHA), also offers a certifying exam known as the ExCPT. However, this certification is NOT widely recognized by states or employers. You should contact your state's board of pharmacy and a few employers in your area before you go this route to make sure it will be worth it for you.
- Earning a certificate, diploma, or degree from a pharmacy tech school is NOT the same thing as being certified.
Requirements for pharmacy technicians don't just involve official regulations or an alphabet soup of organizations. If you want to perform well as a pharmacy tech (and want to have any chance at enjoying it), you'll need to come to the job with the following:
- Good math, spelling, and reading skills
- Strong attention to detail and a passion for precision and accuracy
- The ability to empathize with other people
- Strong communication and interpersonal skills
- A commitment to behaving ethically and responsibly
- The ability to concentrate at a high level while busy
- Problem-solving and conflict resolution skills
- A thick skin
- A desire to keep learning
How Do I Become a Pharmacy Technician?
"How do I become a pharmacy technician" is a simple and common question among those with a genuine interest in working behind the pharmacy counter. Unfortunately, the answer is not quite as simple. That's because the path you need to take all depends on the regulations of the state in which you intend to work, and how serious you are about trying to turn a pharmacy tech job into a long-term career.
Consider the following points:
- In almost all cases, you will need to have at least a high school diploma (or equivalent) in order to apply for pharmacy tech jobs. Employers may also screen you for illicit drugs and check that you have no criminal record.
- You need to know what requirements there are (if any) for pharmacy technicians from
your state's board of pharmacy. You might be required to register with the state, attain official certification, complete an approved pharmacy tech training program (in a few states), or satisfy a combination of these requirements before you can work.
- Although it is not required that you attend a pharmacy technician school in order to qualify for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Examination (PTCE), it might be a good idea, especially if you have no experience in the field. Some people are able to prepare for the exam on their own using widely available study guides. But many others find it necessary to have the structure, support, and discipline that formal training from a pharmacy school can provide.
- The programs at some pharmacy technician schools include a hands-on component, complete with mock pharmacies and mock prescriptions. And some of these schools also include a clinical externship, which can be a good way to gain real-life experience and contacts in the field.
- One of the benefits of attending a quality pharmacy tech school is that you may have the opportunity to learn more of the why behind the procedures of a pharmacy technician instead of just learning what to do. This is important since you will be working with substances that can harm patients if they are not handled correctly.
- Jobs at retail pharmacies are generally the easiest to get if you don't have any experience. However, you are more likely to end up in a satisfying career if you can land a pharmacy technician job at a hospital first. Hospitals often seek candidates with formal pharmacy tech training, and those with at least an associate's degree are frequently preferred. Also, it can be difficult to break into doing hospital work if your only experience and training is in the retail pharmacy environment.
- Volunteering at a hospital can sometimes be a good way to get your foot in the door and make important contacts that can help you land the job you want later on.
- Regardless of the path you choose, you may need to practice patience and persistence in order to get the kind of job you really desire.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Pharmacy Tech?
The time it takes to become a pharmacy technician all depends on the state in which you intend to work and the path you choose. Since a formal post-secondary education is not required in all states or by all employers, it is possible to get hired by a pharmacy and begin on-the-job training soon after you apply for a job. In other cases, you might need a bit more patience. So, how long does it take to become a pharmacy tech?
If you can get hired without any experience or formal schooling, then employers' on-the-job training programs generally last anywhere from three to 12 months. At the end of that training, most employers will pay for you to take the Pharmacy Technician Certification Examination (PTCE). You might need an additional few weeks to study for the exam after your training. Then again, you might not.
On the other hand, if you are required to attend a formal pharmacy technician school (or choose to go to one even if you aren't), then the time it takes to become a pharmacy tech can vary significantly. Pharmacy technician programs can last from as little as two to six months (if all you want is a certificate or diploma) to as much as two years (if you want to come away with an associate's degree).
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) accredits a number of pharmacy technician programs. ASHP-accredited programs incorporate a minimum of 600 hours of training over 15 weeks or longer.
How Much Does Pharmacy Technician Training Cost?
This is an important consideration. Since the starting wages of most pharmacy technician jobs is relatively low, you'll want to carefully weigh the benefits of your schooling against the expenses you are likely to incur. So, how much does pharmacy technician training cost?
Obviously, if you only receive training by an employer on the job, then the cost to you is nothing. In fact, you will be getting paid while you learn. However, this isn't a realistic (or desirable) option for everyone.
The programs at pharmacy technician schools vary substantially depending on where they are located, how long they last, and which type of institution they belong to. Total costs at pharmacy tech schools can range from as little as $1,200 to as much as $27,000.
If you choose to attend a pharmacy school, student loans are usually available (from both the federal government as well as private lenders)—assuming you qualify. In addition, you might be able to qualify for a scholarship from a professional organization or education foundation related to pharmacy or allied health, either at the national or state level.
What Can I Expect to Learn at a Pharmacy Technician School?
Pharmacy technician schools are designed to help students learn how to assist pharmacists and perform necessary duties within a pharmacy, all while adhering to relevant laws and ethical standards. Despite this common goal, however, the programs at pharmacy tech schools can vary significantly in how they try to achieve it. It all depends on the length of the program, the teaching methods employed, and whether the program is accredited by an organization that is nationally recognized in the field.
If you have the option, it is a good idea to choose a pharmacy tech program that is accredited by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). That's because ASHP-accredited programs are designed to combine in-depth classroom learning with hands-on experiences in mock pharmacies, real pharmacies, or both.
The curriculum of an ASHP-accredited pharmacy technician program generally includes courses that teach you how to:
- Assist a pharmacist in most aspects of a pharmacy practice
- Identify drugs and their classifications for different systems of the human body
- Collect, organize, and evaluate information related to the practice of a pharmacy
- Control and maintain pharmacy inventory
- Assess medication prescriptions and orders
- Properly prepare different types of pharmaceutical products
- Distribute medications
- Identify patients that want or need counseling from a pharmacist
- Handle medications safely and watch for errors
- Collect payments
- Monitor medication therapies
- Maintain pharmacy equipment and facilities
- Work with experimental drugs
- Develop professional traits and interpersonal skills
- Perform quality assurance
- Understand certification and pharmacy organizations
- Carry out necessary duties in different types of work settings (such as acute care, long-term care, home care, ambulatory, and community pharmacy environments)
What is the Job Outlook for Pharmacy Technicians?
The job outlook for pharmacy technicians is fairly bright. Employment of pharmacy techs is expected to grow by 31 percent between 2008 and 2018 (much faster than average). **
This rosy outlook is based on the fact that the population of middle-aged and elderly people in the U.S. will increase over that time period. In addition, new drugs keep coming onto the market, and more and more people are receiving prescription drug coverage. Plus, pharmacy technicians are increasingly taking over more of the administrative duties that were once assigned to pharmacy aides.
One trend, however, that may or may not affect the employment of pharmacy technicians in the future is automation. Pharmacy technology, such as medication dispensing machines, are getting more and more advanced and may one day be capable of taking over some of the more routine duties of a pharmacy technician.
Can a Pharmacy Technician Become a Pharmacist?
Yes, a pharmacy technician can indeed become a pharmacist—with the proper education. In fact, many pharmacists first spent time working as a pharmacy technician in order to "test the waters."
The road to becoming a pharmacist is a long one. Pharmacy schools typically require that prospective students first complete at least two years of specific professional study—such as in math, the natural sciences, the social sciences, or the humanities. Once accepted into a properly accredited pharmacy program, students must complete four years of education in order to graduate with a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree.
Pharm.D. programs generally include in-depth education and training in a variety of areas such as drug therapy, professional ethics, communication with patients and colleagues, public health concepts, and business management. Schools of pharmacy combine classroom learning with real-world internships at pharmacies supervised by licensed pharmacists.
Once graduated, some new pharmacists continue their training in a post-graduate residency program or fellowship, which can last one or two additional years. This training is often mandatory if you wish to specialize in a particular area of clinical practice.
All states require pharmacists to be licensed in order to practice. In order to obtain a pharmacy license, pharmacists must have earned a Pharm.D. degree from a pharmacy school approved by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE), pass state-mandated exams, and have worked a specified number of hours within a pharmacy setting (often achieved while earning the Pharm.D. degree). Many states also have an age requirement and conduct a criminal background check.
Of course, becoming a pharmacist is not the only option for advancement as a pharmacy
technician. While there are limited opportunities in small pharmacies, experienced
pharmacy technicians—with additional training—can sometimes advance
to supervisory positions in large pharmacies or health facilities. Pharmacy techs
that work in hospitals can also advance into specialty positions where they work
with medications and substances used in the treatment of cancer. Such pharmacy techs
are often known as
"chemotherapy technicians" or "nuclear pharmacy technicians."
How Can I Get Started?
Get a sense of the demand for pharmacy technicians in your area by calling a few hospitals, community pharmacies, and other health facilities. If the demand seems low, investigate other regions that you might like to reside and work in. The need for pharmacy technicians isn't going away anytime soon, so it's just a matter of finding your place. Just be sure that you understand the pharmacy regulations in the state where you intend to work. Then, if you choose to get formal training, check out the pharmacy technician schools near you. You could soon be making a difference in an industry that helps people lead better lives.