Pharmacy techs tackle expanded role

Are the nation’s more than 330,000 pharmacy technicians ready to step up to a higher level of patient services and a more demanding but rewarding career?

For most pharmacy techs, that step up in duties is either fast approaching or has already begun. Given the massive changes sweeping the severely stressed U.S. healthcare system and the retail, clinical and hospital pharmacies that serve it, thousands of technicians in those settings are already taking on meatier roles as they fill the void left by pharmacists called on to perform additional clinical services.

The additional support needed by technicians is a direct result of the fundamental shifts in patient care responsibilities that are transforming the pharmacy workplace. As overburdened primary care physicians turn to pharmacists, nurse practitioners and other health professionals to take on more of the routine care and monitoring of patients, pharmacists are focusing increasingly less on prescription drug dispensing, pharmacy administration and insurance adjudication. With physicians looking to ease their patient caseloads for routine conditions, hospitals releasing patients “quicker and sicker,” and health plan payers desperately scrambling for more cost-effective ways to improve their patients’ health and well-being, pharmacists are taking on increasing responsibility for such clinical services as patient education and oversight, disease management, immunizations and medication therapy management.

Given the growing complexity of the position, training and certification are fast becoming a basic requirement for any post as a pharmacy technician. “More and more employers are requiring pharmacy technician certification,” the American Society of Health System Pharmacists noted. “Most pharmacy technician job postings say that they want candidates who are either already certified or are currently enrolled in pharmacy technician school.”

At this point, only a relative handful of states — Colorado, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — “currently do not require registration, licensure or certification of pharmacy technicians,” according to the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board. And a growing number of states — a total of 16, according to the “2011 Survey of Pharmacy Law” from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy — now require that all pharmacy techs be certified by PTCB or other accrediting body before working behind the counter.

PTCB urges techs to “consult their state board of pharmacy for complete and current pharmacy regulations and practice acts.”

The growth of tech responsibilities and the rise in training requirements go hand in hand. “With increasing levels of training and certification, the role of the tech continues to evolve,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted in a recent report. “In many cases, he or she handles virtually every step of the prescription dispensing workload, up until final verification of the script by the pharmacist before it goes to the patient. Techs also may establish and maintain patient profiles, prepare insurance claim forms, and stock and take inventory of prescription and over-the-counter medications.”

“As cost-conscious insurers begin to use pharmacies as patient care centers and pharmacists become more involved in patient care, pharmacy technicians will continue to see an expansion of their role,” the bureau report predicted.

At its most basic level, the forces that are reshaping the roles of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians are driven by “the power of community pharmacy services to improve health and reduce costs,” said Steve Anderson, president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, at the organization’s annual meeting April 22.

“The value added by community pharmacy — in the areas of medication counseling, health education, screenings, vaccinations and disease state management — can add tremendous value to a healthcare system that needs solutions that are cost-effective, high-quality and patient-centric,” Anderson said.

NACDS, for its part, is on record supporting “mandatory requirements for training and evaluating technicians.” The organization also favors the adoption by all state boards of pharmacy of a set of standards that would “require employer-based pharmacy technician training programs and evaluation exams” to provide techs with “hands-on training and interaction with pharmacists.”

Pressure for a training and certification standard for pharmacy techs also is coming from state boards of pharmacy. Although, at present, “only a few states require you to be certified,” ASHP noted, “that list is growing as pharmacists depend more on technicians for support.”

What’s more, noted a report from the National Pharmacy Technician Association, “with the invention of e-prescribing, pharmacy technicians may find they may need to attend training on electronic prescribing and protocol in the pharmacy … as more pharmacies adapt to more efficient and electronically savvy ways of doing business.”

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