We’re a little more than halfway through American Pharmacists Month, a celebration of pharmacists across the country. Today is Pharmacy Technician Day, a day to recognize the essential staff who help pharmacists through their day to day. If you’re not a pharmacist or a tech, you may not know the difference between the two. While both are critical for retail pharmacies to function, their roles are not the same.
Pharmacists are the captains of the pharmacy ship. They undergo years of training to obtain their PharmD degree and the licensing required by their state. Pharmacy techs are the much-needed crew members. Often, they are individuals who hope to one day pursue a career as a pharmacist. Techs are supervised by the pharmacist, but are trusted to do the following:
- Collect information needed to fill a prescription
- Measure amounts of medication for prescriptions
- Package and label prescriptions
- Organize inventory
- Accept payment for prescriptions and process insurance claims
- Enter customer or patient information into a computer system
- Answer phone calls
- Arrange for customers to speak with a pharmacist if customers have questions about medications or health matters
Techs can pursue specialized training in subject areas like compounding, pharmacy automation, hazardous drug management, revenue cycle management, and health information systems. Techs can also work outside retail settings, just like pharmacists. Pharmacy techs who work in hospital or health system settings may have additional responsibilities, such as preparing sterile medications, obtaining medication histories from patients, or even supply chain management.
We wanted to learn more about the pharmacy technician role from people who have actually experienced it. First we spoke with a pharmacist, Ben H., who got his start as a pharmacy tech. Then we met with a current employee of ScriptDrop, Fiona T., who used to work as a pharmacy tech. (Initials and pseudonyms used for privacy reasons.)
ScriptDrop: Thanks for talking to us today! Could you both give us a little background on your pharmacy experiences?
BH: I've been a pharmacist for 12 years and a pharmacy owner for 5 years, but I got my start as a pharmacy technician after graduating high school. I then went to pharmacy school at Ohio Northern University where I received my Doctor of Pharmacy degree (PharmD). Now I’m the co-owner of two community pharmacies in southeastern Ohio.
FT: In 2012, I worked as a pharmacy tech at a large chain pharmacy.
ScriptDrop: What were your pharmacy tech responsibilities, Fiona?
FT: Technicians are there to ensure the pharmacist has the capacity to focus on checking medications and consulting patients. The role was split into four rotations: front register and drive-thru, insurance billing, filling medications, and returning medications to stock. We would make reminder phone calls to patients who hadn't picked up their medications and help customers locate over-the-counter items.
ScriptDrop: Ben, how does your role as the pharmacist differ from that of the pharmacy techs?
BH: As a pharmacist, I focus on counseling patients on proper use, assessing for drug-drug interactions, checking appropriateness of therapy and dose, and ensuring that the pharmacy technicians have properly processed and filled prescriptions before they are dispensed to the patient. We also offer other clinical services. We provide CDC recommended vaccinations, consultations, point of care testing (COVID, flu, strep), and pharmacogenetic testing to our patients.
Meanwhile, our pharmacy techs complete data input for new prescriptions, process refill prescriptions, bill insurance plans, process and fill prescriptions, order and maintain inventory, and interact directly with our patients. Pharmacy techs essentially run the pharmacy. My role as a pharmacist is to ensure our systems operate as they should, ensure technicians are well trained and supported, and double-check their work before the medication is dispensed.
There’s a lot to do in a pharmacy. It simply could not function without a well-trained team of pharmacy technicians.
ScriptDrop: What are some of the challenges that pharmacy techs face?
FT: I worked at an extremely busy pharmacy, so I had to be on my A-game at all times. It's important to be absolutely certain that mistakes aren't slipping through the cracks when dealing with a patient's medication. There were many steps in place to make sure this didn't happen. For example, the pharmacist on duty always double-checked the medications filled by the techs to ensure it was the right medication, dosage, and amount. This could be really stressful for the pharmacist as they had to juggle these duties along with patient consultations.
BH: Retail pharmacy is an incredibly complex job with many moving parts. Techs have to contend with customer service, third-party billing, navigating complex dispensing systems, and interpreting prescriptions in a fast paced retail environment. That is incredibly challenging. In addition to all of this, pharmacy techs must work with patients who are sick or not at their best.
ScriptDrop: Fiona, did you experience any particularly good moments while working as a tech?
FT: There was an older woman who needed a long list of over-the-counter supplies (in addition to her prescription) to prep for an upcoming procedure. She was really stressed out and didn't know how to locate everything she needed. I helped her find the items the doctor had written on her list and we chatted about nothing in particular. By the time she left she had relaxed a bit. It was a great feeling knowing I was able to help her.
ScriptDrop: Ben, have any of the pharmacy techs with whom you've worked gone on to become pharmacists themselves?
BH: Yes! Since I’m located near Ohio University, several undergraduate students who worked for me as part-time technicians have gone to pharmacy school and are now practicing as pharmacists. One of our current pharmacy technicians and Ohio University undergrad, Maria O., was accepted into pharmacy school just last week! It's been incredibly rewarding for me as a pharmacist to have mentored several pharmacy technicians who have gone on to become licensed pharmacists.
ScriptDrop: Fiona, obviously you didn’t become a pharmacist, but did you learn anything as a tech that has informed your work in healthcare IT?
FT: My experience in the pharmacy gave me a great baseline for a career in healthcare IT. It gave me a working knowledge of drug acronyms, controlled medication rules, insurance billing, and so many other aspects of the healthcare industry that have crept into my work in HIT. I knew going into a career in HIT that the “donut hole” for medical billing isn't actually a donut!
ScriptDrop: Ben, are there any particular techs you'd like to call out for their great work?
BH: All of my technicians are amazing and we have an awesome patient centered culture at our pharmacies. Whitney F. and Erin H. have been rockstars in helping our new Athens, OH location grow and adapt. We simply couldn't be successful without our team of pharmacy technicians!
Next time you receive a prescription from ScriptDrop or stop by your local pharmacy, think kindly of the pharmacy techs that helped prepare your medication. As any pharmacist would tell you, techs are the lifeblood of a pharmacy. We’re grateful for their hard work.