How to Become a Pharmacy Technician

What is a Pharmacy Technician?

A pharmacy technician is a trained individual who provides drug preparation and dispensing assistance to those in need of pharmacy-related care. They almost always work under the guidance and direction of a pharmacist, and therefore are responsible for carrying out tasks directed by the pharmacist. The technician is essentially a liaison between the pharmacist and clients/customers. Given the difference in training requirements between a pharmacy technician and pharmacist, the technician is not in charge of making decisions about patient care. However, the assistance given to the pharmacist by one or more technicians in a health setting is crucial for providing quick, valuable, and accurate care to patients in need.

What Does a Pharmacy Technician Do?

The job duties of a pharmacy technician will vary somewhat depending on the location as well as the setting in which they work, and the pharmacist they work under. The typical tasks a pharmacy technician carries out range from direct interactions with customers at a pharmacy to working behind the scenes filling prescriptions.

At a pharmacy in a store like Walgreens or Walmart, the pharmacy technician will likely encounter a wide variety of job duties, some of which may be unrelated to their training. For instance, a regular cashier cannot work behind the pharmacy counter, so the pharmacy technician will need to handle prescription transactions. The individual that customers interact with over the counter is most often a pharmacy technician rather than a pharmacist. The pharmacy technician may also work at the drive through window in pharmacies that have this feature.

Pharmacy technicians may find that their services are needed over the phone. The technician may be responsible for calling patients to inform them their prescription is ready, or handle any complaints and answer questions. The technician may also need to handle insurance disputes or fill prescriptions from doctors. Some states require a pharmacist to verify a prescription before the pharmacy technician fills it.

It should be noted that pharmacies with a full staff often have at least one pharmacy aide to handle the clerical duties such as customer relations and phone services. This is done to allow the technician to focus exclusively on duties such as filling prescriptions. However, many pharmacies will need technicians to step in and handle these duties if an aide needs assistance or if the pharmacy cannot afford to employ an aide.

Pharmacy technicians also perform a number of pharmacy-related tasks, which their training will teach them how to complete. For example, at a hospital, the technician will often be tasked with tracking stock of the medicine, as well as filling and labeling prescription bottles. In some states, a pharmacy technician is allowed to compound medications and mix parenteral fluids with prescriptions. This latter task is often performed under direct supervision of the pharmacist, and by those who have excelled in their training program.

Where Does a Pharmacy Technician Work?

Pharmacy technicians are found in a variety of settings. About 75% (1) work in some type of retail setting, including grocery stores and drug stores. These include stores that have pharmacies in conjunction with other services like Target and Walmart, as well as stores that have a pharmacy as the central component of operations like CVS and Walgreens.

Only about 16% (1) work in actual hospitals like private and public hospitals. In a hospital setting, the pharmacy technician is more likely to be part of a bigger team since doctors and pharmacists can be found in one setting.

Other places pharmacy technicians work includes online pharmacies. With the rise of the internet, these have become more common but not all are legitimate and some operate overseas. Working for a legitimate online pharmacy is likely best for pharmacy technicians who do not wish to interact directly with customers.

Why Do We Need Pharmacy Technicians?

Pharmacy technicians are a necessary component of a well-functioning pharmacy. A pharmacist cannot perform all the duties required at a pharmacy, particularly because a pharmacy will often only employ one pharmacist. A pharmacy will likely have numerous pharmacy technicians. The technicians work under the guidance of the pharmacist to help them perform tasks. Between interacting with the public and fulfilling tasks delegated by the pharmacist, the pharmacy technicians stay plenty busy.

The training pharmacy technicians receive makes them extra valuable in a pharmacy setting. While they cannot make executive decisions about pharmacy related decisions, they are often not clueless to their daily tasks like the prescriptions they are filling. It is crucial to have knowledgeable staff keeping track of important prescriptions.

What are the Requirements to Become a Pharmacy Technician?

Educational Requirements

Pharmacy technicians do not need to receive a college degree, however an Associate’s Degree may make them more competitive in the job market. A high school diploma or GED is necessary before receiving further training. No specialized courses need to be taken in high school.

Once a high school degree or equivalent has been acquired, many pharmacy technicians will receive additional training. Classes can be taken at a vocational school or community college. Oftentimes the programs last one year and the individual is awarded a Pharmacy Technician Certificate. Some programs offer a 2-year degree, so pharmacy technicians can earn an Associate’s degree.

Within the 1-year program, pharmacy technicians will learn a variety of useful skills that will help them on the job. Some courses may include pharmacy law, pharmacy related mathematics courses, drug classifications, and hands-on labs that teach individuals how to compound drugs. A 2-year program may include additional courses like English, and Psychology, as well as more in-depth courses related to pharmacy work. Customer service and human resources courses may be part of a 2-year program to help the technician with the customer side of the job.  Both programs will likely require an externship where training can occur under the supervision of a pharmacist while still being enrolled in courses.

Licensing/Certification Requirements

Enrolling in a certification program or community college is an important component to becoming a certified pharmacy technician, but it is actually not necessary. The minimum requirement in many states is to acquire a high school degree or equivalent, not have any drug or felony convictions, and not be restricted from working by any Pharmacy board. Training will occur on the job when hired and additional certification is not usually necessary.

In some states, the next step required is to take the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE). The test can be taken online, is composed of 90 multiple choice questions, and costs $129. It can be taken as many times as needed before passing, although the fee must be paid each time. Taking pharmacy related courses will no doubt help to prepare individuals for the exam, however there are resources online to help individuals pass.

Another certified test that individuals can pass to be certified is the National Healthcareer Association (NHA) test (ExCPT). This test can only be taken by individuals who have completed a 1 or 2-year program or have worked for a year, and is generally looked upon as a more legitimate exam. Passing the exam will require specific knowledge of dosing, drug names, and medication information. The exam costs $119.

Specialized certificates can also be acquired, but are not necessary unless a specific job requires one of the certifications. The National Pharmacy Technician Association (NPTA) offers three certifications: sterile products, chemotherapy, and compounding. The certifications will require individuals to train online first, and then attend a 2-day course in Houston, Texas to gain hands-on experience.

What Do You Learn in a Pharmacy Technician Degree Program?

  • Pharmaceutical math: In these types of courses, students will apply their basic math skills to pharmaceutical problems. For instance, knowledge of multiplication, division, and fractions will be applied to measure the appropriate amount of drug needed in a given situation. New tools and measuring devices will be introduced, as well as how to convert to metric measurements.
  • Drug familiarization: While learning about drugs will continue on the job, basics are learned in a degree program. The most common drugs, their classifications, and uses are learned about in the program and will be tested for on one of the certification exams. Courses that cover drug information often require a large amount of rote memorization rather than application of skills.
  • Pharmacy law: An important component of becoming a pharmacy technician is knowing what is legal in the practice. A course on pharmacy law will teach technicians about ethics and professional standards that should be followed while on the job, as well as courses for actions in the case of a dispute.
  • Drug Compounding: Where pharmacy technicians are able to legally take on this role, they will learn how to mix drugs to the appropriate strength necessary for the customer. Knowledge gained in pharmaceutical math will be important for successfully understanding drug compounding.

What is an Online Pharmacy Technician Program?

Individuals who may not have time to regularly attend a pharmacy technician program in person will be interested in enrolling in online programs. There are numerous online colleges that vary by price, location, and graduation rate. Courses often will cover everything a certified 1 or 2-year certification or college program will teach, but using an online format.

The main difference is that the hands-on component to the courses may be diminished or will need to be coordinated with a local pharmacy, however this depends on the school. For instance, Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson Kansas requires students to attend a lab in-person once each semester for 3 semesters. This program is obviously best for locals who may be enrolled in other courses or who work part-time.

What Skills are Required for a Pharmacy Technician?

The skills a pharmacy technician need to have are varied, and include the following:

  • Patience: Given that the majority of pharmacy technicians will be required to interact with customers, they need to exhibit a great deal of patience and have a calm demeanor. Working a cash register and speaking over the phone can put them in contact with many individuals, which may be stressful. They will need to be able to maintain their composure after being treated rudely or having to stay on the phone for an hour.
  • Team Player: A pharmacy is an environment that requires many individuals to work together. Pharmacy technicians need to be able to communicate with one another in addition to following instructions given by the pharmacist. In the case of a pharmacist who has limited team management skills, the technicians will need to work together as a team to complete tasks and coordinate assignments.
  • Stamina: Many pharmacies (particularly those in retail stores) are busy places that require technicians to remain on their feet most of the day. Although heavy lifting may not be necessary, a lot of movement will occur between filling prescription bottles and organizing drug stock.
  • Detail Oriented: Pharmacy technicians need to pay attention to very minute details and constantly be on watch for errors. Labels need to be checked, and the correct drugs need to be given to the right customer. Keeping track of inventory will also require adherence to details to ensure stocks are maintained, and are replenished when low.
  • Trainable/quick learner: Being able to learn new skills is critical as a pharmacy technician. The certification programs are often fast-paced and packed with information, so learning quickly is a plus. Receiving training on the job will require adherence to established workplace norms, and the ability to learn additional information not necessarily taught in the
  • Multilingual: Although this is not a necessary skill, being able to speak at least one other language will make a candidate more likely to be hired and be a useful asset to the team. In particular, Mandarin and Spanish are helpful languages to know, particularly in certain states like California.

How Much Does a Pharmacy Technician Make?

Like many careers, the exact amount of pharmacy technician can earn will depend on experience, location, and area of work. Pay increases are likely for pharmacy technicians who supervise other technicians and who have earned special certifications. While many pharmacy technicians work full time, many part-time positions are available as well.

As of May 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median earnings of a pharmacy technician is about $31,000 (about $15 per hour), with the bottom 10% earning about $21,000 and the top 10%, $46,000. Workers in hospitals tend to be paid more than other locations, averaging $36,000 per year, while those at grocery stores can expect to earn a little over $29,000.

The top 5 states with the highest paying pharmacy technicians were Washington, California, Alaska, North Dakota, and Oregon. Washington pharmacy technicians earned an average of $42,000 per year while those in Oregon earned about $38,000.

What is the Job Outlook for Pharmacy Technicians?

Becoming a pharmacy technician is almost guaranteed to land a prospective individual a job. BLS notes that the job market for pharmacy technicians is expected to grow 12% in the next 10 years, which is much higher than the 7% projection for all occupations overall. It is slightly lower than health technicians as a whole at about 14%.

This increase will be apparent for a number of reasons. As the US population ages, more individuals will need medical care and pharmaceuticals. Additionally, non-communicable diseases like diabetes and Alzheimer’s are increasing, which require the assistance of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.

The expected increase can also be attributed to the change in pharmacists’ job description. More pharmacists are moving some of their time into delivering patient care like administering vaccines. For this reason, pharmacy technicians will need to take over their previous tasks, which may require hiring on additional staff.

What Professions are Similar to Pharmacy Technician?

Pharmacy Aide: A pharmacy aide has many overlapping job duties with the pharmacy technician and both may work together in the same location. The pharmacy aide is primarily responsible for handling clerical duties in the pharmacy like customer relations and insurance disputes. In many locations, a pharmacy technician will perform the same duties as the pharmacy aide and more. A pharmacy aide earns about $25,000 per year.

Medical Assistant: The medical assistant is a mirror of the pharmacy technician but often works alongside a doctor rather than a pharmacist. They will take vital signs of patients and enter patient information. Like the pharmacy technician, they are not responsible for making decisions about patient care, and can earn a certification in a short amount of time. Medical assistants make about $32,000 per year.

Health Information Technician: The health information technician is responsible for organizing and maintaining patient information and all medical records. They may work from home, in a hospital, or a physician’s office. Much of their time is spent in front of a computer or on a phone. Health information Technicians earn about $38,000 per year.

Pharmacist: The pharmacist is responsible for administering drugs to patients, checking that there are no potential side effects, verifying prescriptions, and reading prescription information to patients. Pharmacists oversee the job duties of pharmacy technicians and pharmacy aides. Pharmacists often earn upwards of $100,000 per year.

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