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Career Profile: Pharmacy Technician

What is a Pharmacy Technician?

If you've ever wandered through a supermarket and wondered who those important-looking people wearing lab coats might be, you've already had your first contact with pharmacy technicians. As you might expect, pharmacy technicians work in pharmacies, and these days, pharmacies can be found in all sorts of retail and medical settings, primarily grocery stores, drug stores, and hospitals.

Simply put, pharmacy technicians help licensed pharmacists dispense prescription medication. However, the day-to-day duties of a pharmacy technician are often far more varied than that, involving complex medical work, record-keeping and a great deal of communication with patients, customers and medical professionals.

What Does a Pharmacy Technician Do?

When first researching the duties of a pharmacy technician, there is often a great deal of confusion as to whether the position represents health sciences, customer service, or clerical work. These technicians are responsible for all of the above, and often much more.

The chief duty of a pharmacy technician is arguably the preparation of medications under the direction of a licensed pharmacist. This includes measuring, mixing, counting, labeling and recording the proper dosage allotted to each individual. For some, working in close proximity to a superior can create feeling of anxiety, but this sort of workplace relationship is a fact of daily life.

Since pharmacy technicians spend much of their time counting tablets, measuring amounts of medications for prescriptions, and mixing medications and preparing ointments, they must also ensure the proper storage and security conditions for drugs and medications is maintained. Thus, the daily tasks of pharmacy technicians also often involve cleaning and maintaining equipment and work areas, as well as ensuring sterile product preparation.

So far, it might seem that the daily life of a pharmacy technician mainly consists of quiet lab work and occasional clerical duties. However, for many pharmacy technicians, these tasks only represent a fraction of an average day's duties. Much of a pharmacy technician's job involves face-to-face or over-the-phone communication with patients or customers. These interactions often include taking information from customers and accepting payment for prescriptions and processing insurance claims. Aspiring pharmacy technicians should bear in mind that for many patients, discussing their prescription can be sensitive or embarrassing, even if it's only discussed with a pharmacist or pharmacy technician. Thus discretion and a professional, understanding demeanor are often very helpful. Also, if a customer's question refers to their specific medication or other confidential health matters, the pharmacy technician is required to arrange for the customer to speak with the pharmacist.

Depending on the environment, the duties of a pharmacy technician may differ substantially at different pharmacies. For instance, those working in a hospital or similar medical facilities are often responsible for preparing a greater variety of medications, such as intravenous medications. They may also make rounds in the hospital, giving medication to patients. In some cases, pharmacy technicians are even responsible for delivering medications and pharmaceutical supplies to patients, nursing stations, or satellite locations.

What Kind of Training Do I Need to Become a Pharmacy Technician?

To become a pharmacy technician, one is usually required to at least earn a high school diploma. However, many individual states also have their own requirements, with some states requiring prospective pharmacy technicians to pass an exam or complete a formal training program.

For many pharmacy technicians, the majority of training comes on-the-job. However, postsecondary education programs in pharmacy technology can be completed at various vocational schools or community colleges; at the conclusion of these programs, graduates usually receive a certificate of completion. Programs of this sort typically last one year or less and cover all the operational procedures and daily tasks required to run a pharmacy. These courses normally cover arithmetic, record-keeping, methods of dispensing medications, and pharmacy law and ethics. Many curriculums also cover the learning of names, actions, uses and doses of medications. Some training programs also include internships, allowing students to garner first-hand experience working in a pharmacy.

Certification for pharmacy technicians is achieved by either The Pharmacy Technician Certification Board or the National Healthcareer Association. Achieving certification can greatly impact the marketability of a pharmacy technician, even in states where certification is not required. In fact, some employers will even pay the fees required for pharmacy technicians to take the certification exam.

Aside from licenses and certifications, there are a number of personal qualities and characteristics that would likely serve an aspiring pharmacy technician well. Perhaps most importantly, a good pharmacy technician would benefit from a detail-oriented mentality. Mistakes made filling prescriptions can result in serious health problems for the recipient, and can also lead to severe repercussions for the pharmacist.

Since pharmacy technicians spend a great deal of time working with customers, customer service skills and a genuinely helpful disposition can go a long way toward ensuring the pharmacy runs smoothly. This can also be beneficial when taking orders from the pharmacist.

At this point, it should be clear that the duties of a pharmacy technician are exceptionally diverse; as a result, organizational skills are also very helpful in completing the work delegated by pharmacists while also tending to the needs of customers or patients.

Career Outlook

For a newcomer learning about the field for the first time, the duties and responsibilities of a pharmacy technician might seem more than a little overwhelming. However, the rigorous standards of pharmacy technicians are absolutely essential, as miscounting a single dosage can have serious consequences for both the career of the pharmacist and the health of the patient.

Yet, as involved as the work of a pharmacy technician may be, there are also a number of benefits to a career in the field. The National Pharmacy Technician Association reports that out of a survey of the 500 best jobs, based on a combination of pay, growth and openings, pharmacy technicians ranked No. 224 overall, though the ranking jumped to No. 43 for women, No. 35 for people interested in health science, and No. 12 for workers between the ages of 16 and 24.

Today, pharmacy technician is one of the fastest growing jobs, with over 39,000 jobs opening within the field every year. Over the next decade, employment of pharmacy technicians is expected to grow 32%, significantly faster than the average for all occupations. Job prospects are expected to be particularly excellent for pharmacy technicians with formal training and experience in retail settings.

Pharmacy technicians earned a median salary of $28,400; according to the BLS, 54% were employed in pharmacies and drug stores. At 18%, the second greatest employer of pharmacy technicians were state, local and private hospitals. The remainder of pharmacy technicians worked at grocery stores, general merchandise stores, and department stores.

Most experts attribute the strong growth within the field to advances in pharmaceutical research, and the increase in prescription medications that are being used to fight diseases. The increasing lifespan of people in developed nations around the globe, and the general population growth among seniors grows is also expected to add to the need for prescription drugs.

It should be noted that since many pharmacies are open day and night, seven days a week, pharmacy technicians are often required to work odd hours and/or weekends. And while most pharmacy technicians work full-time, many others work part-time.

There are several grades of qualified pharmacy technicians that work in hospitals. Pharmacy technicians can specialize in areas like medicine management, manufacturing, quality control, education/training, information technology, supplies procurement, clinical trial, or medicines information services. Those who prove their dedication and effectiveness in the field can work their way up to become chief pharmacy technician; this individual is responsible for managing a section or sections of the hospital's pharmacy department.

Sources of Additional Information

For more information about becoming a pharmacy technician, visit these sites:

National Pharmacy Technician Association

Bureau of Labor Statistics

National Pharmacy Technician Association