HOW TO BECOME A PHARMACY TECH
As the population ages, the demand for pharmacy technicians grows.
Pharmacies are popping up in nearly every corner of the retail market and they all need techs to handle inventories, assist the pharmacist, help customers and perform special work such as compounding medications for patients with very specific medication needs. Here's how to become a pharmacy tech.
What Does a Pharmacy Technician Do?
Pharmacy technicians act as a liaison between the pharmacist and the customer. They provide customer service to patients and relay patient needs to the pharmacists. Techs also maintain the inventory, compound medicines and even stock machines. The specific duties of a tech will vary depending on which environment they are working in.
The environments where a pharmacy tech might work include:
Pharmacies and drug stores
Food and beverage stores
Wholesalers, such as Costco
Hospital-based pharmacy technicians, for instance, work with IV medications and do a lot of laboratory preparation to ensure that patients receive exactly what they need. The lab work might also include extensive cleaning to ensure sterility and the safest possible pharmaceutical environment. Others in the hospital might be charged with maintaining the drug-dispensary machines that nurses rely on to retrieve medications at a moment's notice.
Retail pharmacy techs are in the public eye and deal directly with patients who need medications and advice to enhance their quality of life. Where a hospitalized patient might ask a drug-related question of her doctor, in this setting the pharmacy tech is likely to be asked about the administration of a particular medication, such as correct dosages and should the medication be taken with food or on an empty stomach. When questions extend the scope of knowledge for you as a tech, you will then relay the question to the pharmacist for the correct answer. In the retail world you will also need to maintain inventories. Unlike a hospital, you will only have the main pharmacy inventory to maintain, rather than multiple Omnicell machines in addition to the primary supply area.
A mail-order pharmacy tech finds herself in a more office-like environment, filling prescriptions from a workstation amidst many other techs. The day of a mail-order pharmacy tech might start with meetings with pharmacists and other techs, from there, duties might include preparing compounds, maintaining the patient database, filling vials of medicine and inventory maintenance. Just because a mail-order tech is behind-the-scenes and doesn't deal directly with the public it does not mean that their jobs are easy.
Steps to Become a Pharmacy Tech
Becoming a pharmacy tech is a rather straightforward process:
Have a genuine interest in pharmaceuticals and the medicines that facilitate health and recovery from illness.
- Love biology, chemistry and math
- Desire to assist patients with medications
- Ability to communicate with people from a wide range of backgrounds
Find the best, accredited, program in which to learn pharmacy tech.
- Choose between an online or campus program (though some may offer both types of classroom)
- Ensure that the program includes an externship
- Research student success in passing the PTCB exam for national certification
Successfully complete either the certificate program or degree.
Complete an externship to gain experience in a real-world pharmacy.
Form contacts in the industry.
Develop the instincts needed to succeed as a professional.
Apply to a pharmacy environment that best suits your particular interests.
- National chain drugstores
- Big-box retailers
- Mail-order pharmacies
- Independent pharmacies
Why Become a Pharmacy Technician?
If you've researched other roles within the healthcare industry, you'll know the biggest unifying theme between all of them is the end result of helping people. Choosing a pharmacy technician career goal is no different, as you'll be helping people, but there are other good reasons for pursuing this career field. Here are just a couple to consider:
- You'll have job security
- The pay is good—and there's the potential to earn more
- You'll learn a lot
- There is rapid growth in the field
- It's a great first step toward becoming a certified pharmacist
- You can work in the healthcare industry without the clinical duties. That means if you're queasy around blood you won't need to deal with injuries and gore.
Types of Programs
There are many different programs available to pharmacy techs. The first big decision is whether to go for a full degree or a certificate. Then, you need to find a program that is on a traditional campus or one you can access online.
Certificate programs are a great choice for students who are changing careers and need to make a quick, smooth transition to a new field. These are also a great choice for people who know that they will likely not desire education past their certificate.
A certificate program takes approximately a year and focused exclusively on the profession of pharmacy technician. At the end of the academic work, there is an externship portion that will introduce you to the daily life of a pharmacy tech and provide a modicum of experience that will help you fill out your resume.
A degree program is generally two years and results in a full academic degree, an associate's degree (AA), that will distinguish your credentials and provide a foundation on which to build. That is, when you complete an AA, you will have a transcript of accredited courses that can apply to a full, four-year degree later on. Even if you never return to college again, having a full degree will be worthwhile. The additional courses will inform you as a person and professional, expanding your ability to communicate and understand your patients.
What to Look for in Online Pharmacy Tech Programs
Online pharmacy tech programs are proliferating to meet the growing demand for the profession. They offer students a great deal of flexibility that can facilitate their education to a great degree. For instance, you might even work as a pharmacy tech while pursuing your formal education in your off hours. When you research programs, look for a few specific things:
Accreditation. Make sure that your program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE)
Externship. Even though your campus is virtual, the program can still help facilitate an externship with pharmacies in your local area. Ask your admissions counselor how you will be able to complete this portion of your education and what sorts of relationships the program has with national or local pharmacies.
Certification. Even if you don't wish to sit for the PTCB examination (learn more below), research how well alumni of the program fare on that test. You will want to have the same level of knowledge to best serve your patients and pharmacists. The PTCB awards successful takers a national certification that can give your resume a special distinction.
Components of a Successful Career
A successful career involves a myriad of components that will vary from person to person. Some that you might strive for include:
You might want to pick a specialty, such as laboratory work, in which to thrive. Thus, success will look like a complete mastery over that specific aspect of the pharmacy.
You might look to become a manager of a retail environment, so you might focus your energies towards learning about inventory management and maintenance.
One of the chief elements of a successful career is the degree to which you feel happy and confident in your job.
Your levels of responsibility are likely to continue to grow as your time in the pharmacy continues. A successful career will reflect that growth.
Professional Certification for Pharm Techs
Once you've completed your classroom or online program you can take your career a step further by becoming professionally certified. The Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) offers the CPhT credential to pharm techs wishing to distinguish themselves in the field. The PTCB's website notes the advantages of becoming certified:
- Respect in the field
- Employment opportunities
- May command higher salary
- Career growth potential
- Better understanding of pharmacy law
- Prestige among peers
To be certified you must meet the following requirements:
- Hold a high school diploma or have earned your GED
- Make full disclosure of all criminal and State Board of Pharmacy registration or licensure actions
- Be compliant with all PTCB certification policies
- Earn a passing score on the certification exam
The PTCB has a practice test section on their website, so you can get a feel for the rigorousness of the exam. The exam itself consists of 90 multiple choice questions, 80 of which are scored and 10 are unscored and interspersed randomly throughout the exam. You have one hour and 50 minutes to complete the exam, which covers some of the following topics:
- Pharmacy law
- Medication safety
- Pharmacy quality assurance
- Billing and reimbursement
- Information systems application
- Order entry and the fill process
- Sterile and non-sterile compounding
Useful Skills for Pharmacy Technicians
Besides your studies, there are several skills you could cultivate in order to perform your duties as a pharmacy technician optimally. In your classes you'll learn to work with the tools of the trade, such as Auger Dose Machines, Lab Blenders and Emulsifiers and Sterile Processing and Filling Machines, but what else can you learn to get a jump on the competition?
Since you'll be required to work with computers, software and financial transactions in your dealings with the public, learning some accounting principles—specifically billing and reimbursement—will come in handy. Consider taking a mathematics course. Understanding patient maintenance software, pharmaceutical software and prescription processing software will also give you an advantage. Learn about data management and take a course in Microsoft Excel to further give yourself an edge.
As far as interpersonal skills, O*NET Online suggests fine tuning your knowledge in the following areas:
- Customer service
- Active listening
- Clerical skills
- English language skills
- Critical thinking skills
Salary & Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) studies salaries for every profession, including pharmacy technicians. They state that, in 2021 the median annual salary for pharmacy technicians was $36,740. They state that the typical tech has only a high school diploma and receives moderate training on the job.
The BLS analysis also forecasts great growth in the field. The projected growth outlook is said to be around 4% through at least 2030. This increase is noted as being slower than average for all occupations. This steady pattern most likely stems from the fact that baby boomers are now reaching their sunset years and are in need of more pharmaceutical drugs.
Start on Your Path to Becoming a Pharmacy Tech
There is no time like right now! The Internet is full of websites for schools and programs that will fill you with the knowledge and skills you need to succeed as a pharmacy technician. The sky is the limit!