Pharmacy technicians work under the direction of a licensed pharmacist to dispense medication and provide information to customers. Pharmacy technicians typically work behind a pharmacy counter at a drugstore, grocery store, hospital, nursing home or other medical facility. This position involves working with pharmacists, patients and occasionally with pharmaceutical reps.
Most technicians are certified — the Certified Pharmacy Technician (CPhT) is earned by passing the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE) — and have completed several hundred hours of on-the-job training in order to be able to work with different prescription drugs, understand pharmacy operations and protocol, and abide by ethical standards. Basic job duties include dosing medications and filling prescription orders, taking care of administrative tasks, and handling basic customer service duties at the counter. Some pharmacy techs lead a team of pharmacy staff members as a lead pharmacy technician. Others may be responsible for managing supply and inventory or providing pertinent information to other healthcare professionals.
Becoming a pharmacy technician can be a gateway to a career as a pharmacist, nursing assistant or other medical professional. Demand for pharmacy technicians is expected to remain high for the next decade, making this career path potentially rewarding for those who wish to work in a pharmacy setting.
The median annual wage for pharmacy technicians in 2014 was $29,810, although this varies by state. Pharmacy technicians in Washington, Alaska, California, Hawaii and Oregon are the highest earners, on average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the highest-paying positions are available with federal, state and local government agencies, outpatient care centers, and scientific research and development organizations. Pharmacy techs that work in department stores and health and personal care stores typically make lower annual wages.
Job growth for pharmacy technicians is expected to be roughly 20 percent from 2012 through 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Demand for experienced and skilled pharmacy technicians is expected to stay strong as consumers live longer and increasingly turn to pharmacists for prescription medication to manage chronic diseases and take care of aging-related health issues.
The following states are projected to expand their pharmacy tech job openings the most by 2022:
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) is the accrediting body for pharmacy technician programs. ASHP-certified programs are available at many community colleges and vocational schools. Most certificate programs can be completed within a year or less, while associate degree programs typically take two years to complete. Coursework covers technical and practical training in the following areas:
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Most programs allow students to gain clinical experience during their training. Depending on state laws, students may also choose to gain on-the-job training without enrolling in a postsecondary education program. Clinical experience may take the form of a structured training program at a retail drugstore that has partnered with the school. Another option is to complete hands-on training at an approved pharmacy or medical center.
Some states require pharmacy technicians to become certified. Even in states where certification is not required, most employers will only hire pharmacy techs who are certified by the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) or the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).
The PTCB requires applicants to pass an exam, while the NHA requires students to complete a training program or have at least one year of experience working as a technician. Both organizations require applicants to have a high school diploma.
Some pharmacy technicians choose to work exclusively for a retail drugstore chain and will complete specialized training to serve as a general pharmacy technician, community pharmacy technician or central pharmacy operations technician, or in a similar role.
Pharmacy techs need to pass a recertification exam every two years. They need to complete at least 20 hours of continuing education before sitting for the recertification exam.
A pharmacy technician diploma or certificate program can be completed in one year or less and provides the basic education and training needed to sit for the Certified Pharmacy Technician exam. These programs introduce students to basic concepts in pharmaceutical technology, record keeping, pharmacy law and ethics, and pharmacology. They typically include a combination of classroom learning and lab training so that students learn how to dispense medication, prepare sterile products, and manage prescription orders.
Graduates of a one-year program can apply for entry-level positions at drugstores, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, or with mail-order pharmacy companies. Pharmacy tech certification programs typically require students to complete an externship at an approved pharmaceutical facility, hospital or retail pharmacy.
Examples of courses available in pharmacy technician diploma and certificate programs include:
This course introduces students to pharmacy practices and terminology.
Students gain an understanding of how medications interact in the body after administration and how to use basic mathematic principles for dosing.
This class covers the process by which drugs are approved for general use, as well as drug administration issues for patients.
This course details basic pharmacy operations in a hospital setting.
Students are introduced to the laws and ethics governing pharmacy practice.
Students interested in a more comprehensive educational experience can enroll in a pharmacy technician associate degree program. Although a degree is not required to apply for entry-level positions, some students choose to pursue an Associate of Applied Science degree so they can advance in their careers and apply for jobs as a compounding lab technician, pharmacy service technician, pharmacy implementation specialist or similar roles. Earning an associate degree can also help a student prepare for a Bachelor of Pharmacy or a bachelor’s degree in a related field.
The comprehensive two-year program covers topics in pharmacy operations, pharmacology and advanced administration, and may include an externship component. Students take a series of general courses in mathematics, science, psychology, humanities, and English, in addition to pharmacy- and medical-specific courses to fulfill degree requirements. Graduates of this program can process medication orders, have extensive knowledge about pharmacy law as it applies to filling prescriptions, and demonstrate fundamental knowledge of medical terminology.
Examples of courses offered through a pharmacy technician associate degree program include:
Students learn effective interpersonal communication skills for working with customers in a medical environment.
This course covers mathematical equations and best practices for managing calculations in a pharmacy.
Key principals of drug interactions and the human body are studied, along with the drug types and their effect on the nervous system. This course typically covers basic principles of pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics.
This is a review of nonprescription drugs for common disorders and best practices for managing customer questions about self-treatment.
This course details federal and state laws governing the practice of pharmacies and rules regulating pharmacy technicians’ activities.
Even after completing an associate degree, graduates will have to stay current with changes occurring in the industry or with particular pharmaceutical companies, since new drugs and generic brands are always entering the market. Additionally, they should have cultivated the following skills:
Pharmacy technicians’ primary responsibility is dispensing prescription medication, which requires great attention to detail. Pharmacy techs must be able to measure, mix, dose and dispense appropriate amounts of medication based on the pharmacist’s orders. They may also be involved with data entry tasks to update patient records and fill prescription orders.
Sometimes, pharmacy technicians will need to read and interpret pharmaceutical literature and prescription information. They need to be knowledgeable about pharmaceutical and medical terms and, in some cases, translate information for the customer’s benefit.
Even though it is not pharmacy technicians’ responsibility to provide medical advice, they will be responsible for interacting with customers when dispensing medication. They must have basic customer service skills to ensure they are providing customers with the correct prescriptions, contact customers to advise them that the prescription is ready and follow up with any inquiries customers may have about their order.
Pharmacy technicians can work in a variety of settings. Some settings, such as retail drugstores and grocery store pharmacies, may be busier than others on a daily basis. Pharmacy technicians, therefore, must be able to handle different types of customers, work with great precision under pressure and keep everything organized behind the counter.
Even though pharmacy tech certification and degree programs require hands-on training, some general coursework can be completed online. Many accredited schools offer online pharmacy tech programs that make it easier for a student taking care of a family or working a full-time job to complete their education. Here are some things to look for when exploring online pharmacy technician schools:
The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) and the Commission on Credentialing (COC) accredit pharmacy technician training programs in the United States. Enrolling in an accredited program ensures the program maintains a high standard of quality and complies with the accrediting institution’s requirements.
Since most certification and degree programs for pharmacy technicians require hands-on training through an externship or similar training, it’s important to determine what types of partnerships the school has secured for externships. Some schools offer externship placement as a courtesy to students, while others require students to seek out and apply for training on their own. In either situation, students are typically responsible for organizing their own transportation to the pharmacy, lab or other approved facility to complete this component of the program.
Certification is not required in some states, but most employers prefer pharmacy techs to be certified. An online pharmacy tech certification program needs to provide comprehensive training to prepare a student to sit for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) exam. Those interested in National Healthcareer Association (NHA) certification must have at least one year of work experience, which can be acquired through an externship program offered by the school.
Pharmacy technicians must take the lead in educating themselves on drug information and any major changes occurring in the industry. They may be required to read about drug studies, review pharmaceutical literature or produce reports about different prescription medications and dispensing activities. Since many work in busy retail drugstores or emergency rooms, they must also have strong organizational skills and be able to work in a fast-paced environment without making mistakes.
With additional training, certifications and education, pharmacy technicians can advance in their careers to serve as pharmacists, doctors or other medical professionals. Below is an overview of the median salary, projected job growth and educational requirements for selected related occupations.
Individuals completing a training program at pharmacy technician schools can explore other careers in healthcare after completing a bachelor’s or graduate degree in a related field. Pharmacy techs may move their career forward by serving as pharmacists, medical assistants or registered nurses.
Accredited pharmacy technician certification and degree programs are available at many colleges across the country. Use the search tool below to explore programs by state and degree level.