Career Path: Pharmacist or Pharmacy Technician?

by Anna Johnson

May 3, 2017

The pharmaceutical industry gained notoriety with the introduction of such high-profile drugs as Vioxx and Lipitor. Doctors prescribe these and other drugs, but pharmacists and pharmacy technicians dispense them.

How are pharmacists and pharmacy technicians different? How are they alike? In 1966, Dr. Linwood Tice, Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science dean, envisioned how these occupations would evolve. “The counting and pouring now often alleged to be the pharmacist’s chief occupation will in time be done by technicians and eventually by automation,” he said. “The pharmacist of tomorrow will function by reason of what he knows, increasing the efficiency and safety of drug therapy and working as a specialist in his own right. It is in this direction that pharmaceutical education must evolve without delay.”

Tice’s vision never materialized – the occupations haven’t evolved as he’d hoped. They still share the same counter and have some overlapping duties, but there also are dramatic differences. Here’s a look at both careers.

Where They Work

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are found wherever prescription drugs are dispensed and there are numerous different industries that employ both. In Oregon,  3,750 pharmacists and 4,902 pharmacy technicians were employed across the state in 2014. The industries pharmacists are typically employed in are hospitals (22.2%), health and personal care stores (21.0%), and general merchandise stores (16.8%). Pharmacy technicians are employed in similar industries but at slightly different rates: health and personal care stores (25.1%), general merchandise stores (22.2%), and hospitals (16.2%).  

Job Duties

The pharmacist and pharmacy technician occupations share many duties. In some cases, the pharmacist may perform all pharmacy duties if no technician is present. In Oregon, a pharmacy technician is not allowed to:

  • by pass any drug interaction when processing a prescription without a pharmacist’s involvement
  • answer a question pertaining to a prescription medication or an over the counter medication
  • have a key to the pharmacy
  • know the combination to a pharmacy lock or lockbox containing the key or combination to the pharmacy
  • take a new prescription over the telephone
  • take a change in directions or strength of a prescription
  • choose what medication to refill for a patient (if a patient asks for a refill on their heart medication the pharmacist must determine which medication to refill)
  • provide drug information to anyone, and
  • consult with the patient or patient’s agent regarding their prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications.
Aside from the above, a licensed pharmacy technician may perform most other duties carried out in a pharmacy. However, depending on whether the pharmacy is a community or hospital pharmacy, the duties of the technician may differ. In both instances, duties involving entering prescriptions into the computer, assisting the pharmacist with filling and labeling prescriptions, prepacking bulk medications, and preparing pharmacy inventories are shared.

In pharmacies where patients are quickly stopping by to pick up prescriptions and have a choice of multiple pharmacies, customer service is important. Working with many patients and being the pharmacy cashier are important technician duties.

For hospital-based pharmacies, where the technician has little patient contact, the duties differ. The technician may transport medications or equipment to nursing units or clinics, pick up copies of physician orders, fill medication cassettes, compound nutrition solutions and intravenous mixtures, and perform routine nursing unit inspections.

Education and Training

While pharmacists and pharmacy technicians share space and responsibilities, the education and training requirements are different.

Because a pharmacist is responsible for the pharmacy technicians and for compliance with laws, the pharmacist position requires more education and training. To be eligible to take the licensing exams to practice pharmacy, an individual must have completed a degree from a college of pharmacy. Using Oregon State University as a model – one of two schools in Oregon with a college of pharmacy (the other being Pacific University) – a prospective student must earn a doctor of pharmacy degree to become a licensed pharmacist. This is a four-year professional program involving academic training and internship experience, preceded by some three years of undergraduate studies. At Oregon State University, a student spends seven years becoming eligible for licensure as a pharmacist, earning a bachelor’s degree and a doctor of pharmacy degree.

Pharmacy technicians have no standardized training or educational requirements. To work as a pharmacy technician, one must be licensed by the Oregon State Board of Pharmacy. To get this license, a potential pharmacy technician must complete initial training as outlined by the pharmacist-in-charge, which includes on-the-job and related education commensurate with tasks they are to perform, before regular performance of those tasks. The problem is that pharmacies use technicians differently and therefore require different levels of training. There are some schools in Oregon which offer one- or two-term pharmacy technician certificates. The certificate prepares an individual for entry into the pharmacy technician occupation.

Employment Outlook and Earnings

The overall employment levels and rates of employment growth of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in Oregon reflect the growing size of the nation’s health care industry. The health care and social assistance industry is projected to add the most jobs to Oregon’s economy from the years 2014 to 2024.
Just as the health care industry is expected to show continued growth, Oregon’s employment in the pharmaceutical occupations will likely grow, with pharmacists and pharmacy technicians growing 11.2 percent and 16.6 percent, respectively. Pharmacy technician jobs are growing above the projected growth for all occupations in Oregon between 2014 and 2024, 13.9 percent, while pharmacist positions are growing slower. Most of the growth in annual pharmacist openings will come from replacement openings (88) which are created by those currently employed leaving a position due for reasons such as retirement. However, the largest number of annual pharmacy technician openings will come from growth openings (81). Growth openings are new positions being opened due to increased demand for the occupation.  

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are expected to be fast-growing occupations in most areas in Oregon. The fastest-growing area for both occupations is the Clackamas area, with pharmacist and pharmacy technician jobs projected to grow 17.6 percent and 24.3 percent, respectively, from the year 2014 to 2024. The smallest growth for pharmacists is projected to be in Eastern Oregon (+3.1%), while the slowest growth for pharmacy technicians is expected to happen in the Rogue Valley (+6.3%). 
Earnings in the two occupations tend to follow their respective education requirements. As would be expected, the added education and training requirements and job responsibilities greatly increase the wages for the pharmacist over the pharmacy technician. The median hourly wage in 2016 for pharmacists was $60.61, while for pharmacy technicians it was $17.83.
Summary

These occupations share the same work environment and some of the same duties, but differ dramatically in responsibility, education, and wages. The pharmacist is ultimately responsible for the technicians, has at least seven years of education and training, and can demand high wages. The pharmacy technician has a much lower degree of responsibility, no standardized required education and training, and gets considerably less compensation than a pharmacist.

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