How Pharmacy Technicians Do More Than Count Pills
by HeatherLyn Gray, MPH, SCCEM, CHEC, CPhT
I’ll bet that when you tell people you’re a pharmacy technician (or interested in becoming one), the discussion most likely turns to counting pills. Maybe “back in the day,” that’s all technicians allowed to do – which is probably why we’re experts at it, no one denies that – but times have changed, and pharmacy technicians can do so much more than count pills.
Whether you’re working in a hospital or community setting, there are opportunities for pharmacy technicians to be more engaged in a variety of roles and responsibilities that support patient care beyond pill counting.
First off, if you want to blow the pill-counting stereotype out of the water, look no further than at what technicians performing sterile compounding do daily. Usually working in hospital and clinical settings, Sterile Compounding Technicians mix (compound) intravenous (and other) medications safely and aseptically to ensure the final products are free of contaminants. Keep in mind that these medications are going straight into a patient with very few (if any barriers), so technicians must receive the advanced training and resources to perform in this specialized role.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – of course, it’s easier to find roles beyond pill counting in the hospital setting. And to this point, you’d be kind of correct. Hospital pharmacies are not usually engaged in dispensing 30-,60-, or 90-day supplies of medications to patients, and that responsibility regularly falls on community pharmacies.
This may come as a surprise (not really), but not all medications come in pill form, and some don’t even come in standardized forms or formulations. For those medications, non-sterile compounding might be required. This type of compounding can be done in the community pharmacy setting. It does not require aseptic techniques since the final products have a few more protective barriers, usually being ingested, instilled, inserted, or applied topically. Technicians performing non-sterile compounding need to be good with calculations (as with their sterile counterparts) and problem-solving. They usually bring together weight-based or volume-based compounds to create specific products that may or may not have pre-determined recipes.
Pharmacy technicians often liaisons between pharmacists and other healthcare professionals and patients. It is a normal part of daily operations for pharmacy technicians to help patients better understand medical jargon and help pharmacists. Clinicians figure out exactly which “round, white pill” a patient may have questions about. As a specialized role, Medication History Technicians receive advanced training in performing structured patient interviews to gather accurate medication histories and processes to prevent medication errors.
Lastly, for all the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, some innovative solutions have been implemented that have propelled the pharmacy technician profession forward – namely, the ability to provide immunizations. While the need to bolster our immunization workforce grew in response to COVID-19, the seeds for technicians providing immunizations were planted five years ago. In 2016, Idaho piloted the first training program for technicians to provide immunizations, with the first pharmacy-technician-administered immunization occurring in 2017. This was huge for technicians as an opportunity to better support our pharmacy team and build upon our skills and knowledge. Only a handful of states ever got on board in the years to follow. Then COVID-19 emerged, vaccines were developed, and the U.S. caught on to an untapped vaccinator resource: pharmacy technicians. Since then, immunization training has become more widely available, and more technicians have been allowed to build their skill sets.
Although most pharmacy technicians probably started (or will start) counting pills and still do, there is so much more than technicians are doing – and the non-pharmacy world is starting to see that now. So, the next time someone tries to paint the profession into a corner by just focusing on counting pills, remind them of all the extra stuff we do to support our pharmacy and healthcare teams, ensure patient safety, and keep the pharmacy world moving forward. And then blow them away with your ability to sort tiny objects by 3s, 5s, and 9s.