How to Become a Pharmacy Technician

Overview

By Sarah Maurer
Pharmacy tech preparing a prescription

Pharmacy technicians help patients meet one of their greatest healthcare needs: the safe, effective use of medications. Working under the direction of a licensed pharmacist, technicians prepare and dispense prescriptions and make sure patients have the information they need to use them safely. They also play a key role in preventing dangerous medication errors and spotting potential cases of prescription drug abuse.

When a doctor prescribes medication for a patient, the pharmacy tech swings into action. Common responsibilities include:

  • Receiving prescription information directly from customers, electronically from doctors’ offices, or in some cases by phone.
  • Making sure that the prescription information is clear and not problematic.
  • Preparing the prescribed medication, which may involve calculating dosage, measuring drugs, and possibly mixing/compounding drugs.
  • Preparing packaging and directions for the prescription.
  • Helping the patient understand instructions and any safety precautions.
  • Handling payments, insurance claims and patient records.

Pharmacy techs play an important role in preventing medical error by properly dispensing prescriptions. They’re also on the front lines when it comes to spotting potential drug interactions or suspicious usage patterns that might indicate abuse and referring these to the pharmacist. They follow strict security rules that prevent the theft and trafficking of controlled substances. They also go the extra mile to protect patients' private medical information both online and offline.

The work of the technicians helps to ensure the safety of patients, including those who are elderly, disabled and living with chronic conditions. Techs often establish relationships with their regular customers, who appreciate their patience, knowledge and compassion.

Work Environment

It’s probably no surprise that the majority of pharmacy technicians (54 percent) work in drug stores. Hospitals also employ a significant number (18 percent). In addition, pharmacy techs work in grocery stores, department stores, mail-order pharmacies, nursing homes, correctional facilities and just about anywhere else medications are dispensed.

Pharmacy technicians’ job duties vary somewhat by setting. Those in retail stores typically work with more common medications and have extensive contact with the public. In the hospital setting, technicians have opportunities to work with more and more advanced types of medications, including injectable and chemotherapy drugs. Hospital techs are typically more involved with repackaging and mixing drugs. They may also conduct rounds to administer medications to patients.

Because pharmacies are open long hours (sometimes 24-7), technicians typically work some evening, weekend and holiday hours. On a positive note, this allows for flexible scheduling to accommodate school and family commitments. Most pharmacy technicians work full-time, but part-time jobs are also available.

Working in a pharmacy involves a lot of human interaction, especially in the retail setting. Technicians work closely with their colleagues and the supervising pharmacist to ensure medications are dispensed in a safe and professional manner. Some also spend a significant amount of time with customers as they accept prescriptions, review medication instructions and process payments. When a drug is recalled or unavailable, the technician is generally first to explain the situation to the patient and provide alternatives. Pharmacy technicians also contact doctors’ offices when they need to ask additional questions or clarify prescription information.

Work conditions are generally favorable, especially for active people who dislike being tied down to a desk. Techs spend most of their shifts standing. Stocking shelves and receiving inventory may require some moderate lifting and some climbing on ladders.

The job is also a good one for techies and those with scientific minds. Pharmacy techs have the opportunity to work with many kinds of equipment, from basic lab scales to sterile compounding equipment to high-tech automated dispensing systems. Almost all techs now use computer systems to update patient records, receive electronic prescriptions and to print labels and patient education materials.

Working in a pharmacy poses few health hazards, but access to controlled substances can create an issue for people with a history of substance abuse. For this reason, techs need to maintain a clean criminal record, especially where drug offenses are concerned.

Requirements

Education

Paths to becoming a pharmacy technician vary by state. In some, a high school diploma or GED plus on-the-job training is sufficient. However, the majority of states now require certification. Having a certificate opens up more employment opportunities, even in states that don’t mandate one.

High school students who are considering a career in pharmacy should prepare by taking classes in biology, chemistry and computers. A solid math background is also helpful, as techs need these skills to calculate dosages and mixture ratios. A class in medical terminology is also helpful. (If it’s not taught at school, you may be able to take it through a local community college.)

Many vocational schools and community colleges offer one-year pharmacy technician certificates. Two-year Associate of Science programs are also an option. Training covers basic pharmacology (or medication science), math, record keeping and pharmacy law and ethics. To ensure you’re getting the best possible education, choose a program accredited by the American Society for Health-System Pharmacists.

Pharmacy technicians who want to advance their skills can pursue advanced certification through the National Pharmacy Technician Association. Available specialties include sterile products (IV), chemotherapy and compounding. Coursework involves both home study and on-site learning in Houston, Texas.

Training

It’s still quite common for pharmacy technicians to learn entirely on the job, especially in states that don’t require a certificate. Some employers pay for their technicians to pursue certification and take the exam. Certificate and associate degree programs require students to complete an internship and/or supervised work experience.

Certification

Certification as a pharmacy technician is required by a majority of states. Even where it’s not, it’s still a great way to boost your resume and show your professionalism.

Two national certifying bodies award the Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT) credential: the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board and the National Healthcareer Association. Both require students to hold a high school diploma or GED, pass a background check, achieve a passing score on an exam and pay a fee ($100-$150). Once certified, techs must meet annual continuing education requirements to maintain their status. Certified techs are bound by a strict code of conduct and ethics.

States regulate pharmacy technicians differently. Some require a thorough background check, verification of educational credentials, fees and a licensing exam. In others, registration will suffice. And in a few, there are no regulations at all. Contact your State Board of Pharmacy to find out which rules apply to you.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

A career as a pharmacy technician requires a sharp mind. Attention to detail is an absolute must. You’ll need to be able to spot problematic drug usage patterns and potential medication errors. You’ll also need to discern between medications that look alike or have similar sounding names.

Proficiency in math is also important. Techs must be able to convert between measuring systems, measure accurately and calculate individual and daily dosages. Math is also essential during compounding, when you’ll need to calculate things like ratio strength, dilution and concentration.

On the practical side, techs need to balance a lot of tasks at once. It takes an organized mind to move efficiently between fulfilling prescriptions, answering phones and working the customer counter. A good tech also keeps the pharmacy running smoothly by staying on top of cleaning, stocking and other everyday duties.

Physically, techs should be capable of standing and walking for several hours at a time. The ability to life moderate loads is helpful for receiving orders and working with stock.

Interpersonal skills are another big asset. Pharmacy techs who work in retail settings must be customer-service stars. They should be comfortable working with patients of all backgrounds, including the elderly and people with disabilities. They also need to communicate with their colleagues and supervising pharmacist.

Because pharmacy techs work with sensitive information and controlled substances, the job has very high moral and ethical standards. Certified techs must adhere to a strict code of conduct. Standards cover protecting patient privacy, avoiding conflicts of interest and much more. Techs must also maintain a clean criminal record, especially when it comes to drug-related offenses.

Opportunities for Advancement

Experienced, well-educated pharmacy techs have a world of opportunity open to them. Those who are clinically minded can pursue advanced certification in IV drugs, chemotherapy and compounding. Working in the pharmacy of a research or academic hospital can provide opportunities to learn new skills and work with new medications.

There are also opportunities for leadership. Senior techs in large pharmacies often manage the work of others. Techs who hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree are eligible to teach in certificate, associate degree and continuing education programs.

Working as a tech is also a great way to find out if you’re interested in a career in pharmacy or another health profession. Flexible scheduling makes this a great job for people who want to gain real-life experience before applying to graduate or professional school. Education can also open up positions in healthcare administration, the pharmaceutical industry and health information technology.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become a pharmacy technician, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for all pharmacy technicians is $30,410. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $20,950, and the highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $45,030. Techs working in hospital setting are generally better paid than those who work in retail personal care stores. Salary generally increases with experience, education level and job responsibility.

In a word, the job outlook for pharmacy technicians is strong. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment is expected to grow by 9 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

So what’s driving this upward trend? For one, the U.S. population is aging rapidly. Older people generally take more medications than younger ones, which will create a surge in medication use in coming decades. In addition, an increase in the use of medication therapy to treat all sorts of conditions is driving a demand for pharmacy services.

Job candidates can gain a competitive edge by furthering their education and obtaining voluntary certifications. Retail experience is also a plus, as this is the fastest growing pharmacy sector.

The NPTA Career Center is filled with resources for job seekers. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists maintains a job board called CareerPharm, as well as personal placement services.

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