The VA employs more than 5000 licensed pharmacists throughout its network of medical centers, ambulatory and community-based outpatient clinics, and nursing homes. Pharmacists get the chance to apply the full scope of their skills and knowledge in their practice—working closely with physicians, nurses, and other health care practitioners to ensure that the nation's veterans receive the best care. The VA offers plenty of room for advancement, as well as a chance to work with the largest residency program in the United States.
The VA's pharmacy residency program offers more practice settings and practice areas than any private sector system, with specialty opportunities for both postgraduate year 1 (PGY-1) and postgraduate year 2 residents. These specialties include ambulatory care, geriatrics, infectious diseases, intensive care, internal medicine, oncology, primary care, and psychiatry.
Jane Pendergrass, RPh, is chief of pharmacy service at the Durham VA Medical Center (DVAMC) in North Carolina, where she has been on the staff since 1978. DVAMC's PGY-1 program is one of more than 80 VA pharmacy residency programs accredited by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
Pendergrass has seen much growth in the profession over the past 30 years. "We now have a large staff of clinical pharmacy specialists, and many of them have limited prescriptive authority; in the late 1970s, that was unheard of," she explained. "Pharmacists have moved beyond the walls of the pharmacy to take active roles with the medical center."
Indeed, VA pharmacists round with the entire patient care team, helping to guide the best course of drug therapies. They provide direct patient education, as well as conduct therapeutic and pharmacokinetic consulting services.
At DVAMC, pharmacy residents can choose from a variety of elective rotations, including clinics focusing on anticoagulation, hypertension, diabetes, and lipid and risk reduction. "We have a lot of opportunity to assist our patients by providing medication counseling and assuring each patient understands his or her medications," notes Pendergrass. Other rotations focus on infectious disease, formulary management, pharmacy administration, and the investigational drug service.
For those currently practicing in the retail setting, the VA offers a high level of support to pharmacists who want to make the switch. All newly appointed VA pharmacists complete an extensive orientation program, and former retail pharmacists hired into VA outpatient settings can complete special training and certification. The VA also offers tuition reimbursement and scholarship programs for professional continuing education.
Another advantage the VA offers is mobility. With facilities in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and US territories, an employee may seek employment at any VA location posting a vacancy and, if hired, transfer without loss of benefits. Only one active state license is necessary to practice in any VA facility.
VA salaries are competitive with the private sector. Starting salaries are recommended by a Pharmacist Professional Standards Board, based on professional education, training, and experience. VA pharmacists are compensated according to a Locality Pay System that ensures that they are paid competitive rates within each local labor market.
The VA has been on the leading edge of the electronic health records movement. VA pharmacists work in a virtually paperless workplace that includes a computerized patient record system, a bar-code medication administration system, and fully automated robotic dispensing systems. Thus, VA pharmacists have more time to focus on patient care.
For more information on opportunities with the VA, go to www.VAcareers.va.gov, or call 800-949-0002.
"The VA is an excellent environment to practice pharmacy," she concludes. "We have both inpatient and outpatient pharmacies which allow for a varied practice, and this helps prevent burnout. Assisting in the care of military veterans is rewarding by itself. Every day, in some way, we have made a difference to our patients."