Fred M. Eckel, RPh, MS
Pharmacy Times Editor-in-Chief
Mr. Eckel is professor and director of the Office of Practice Development and Education at the School of Pharmacy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Pharmacy faces an interesting challenge. Pharmacists have a huge opportunity to take on an expanded role in helping patients manage their medication; however, to do this, we need to offload more routine tasks.
More than a quarter million certified pharmacy technicians could take on more of these everyday jobs. The question is, how can we ensure they consistently have the knowledge and capabilities to safely handle broader responsibilities?
Certification is an important step toward developing a well-qualified technician workforce. More than 250,000 technicians have passed the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) exam since its inception in 1995. Although not all states require it, the growing enthusiasm for certification has resulted in the growth of a second program, the Exam for the Certification of Pharmacy Technicians.
Technicians who have passed these exams should be commended. Certification benefits pharmacists and the public, as well as helping to advance technicians' careers. Some states already recognize the value of certification by allowing higher technician?pharmacist ratios and the ability to hand off some tasks, such as prescription transfer requests.
Is it enough, however, to simply pass an exam? Many pharmacists are concerned about inconsistency in the quality of knowledge and expertise among pharmacy technicians, even those who have passed the PTCB exam.
Ultimately, technicians should be able to handle more responsible roles and carry them out with a degree of autonomy. We need to feel confident that at least part of the technician workforce has the expertise to do this reliably and safely. A growing consensus among pharmacists and employers suggests that the way to this consistent high standard is by implementing a formal training program in addition to exams. Training programs already exist in most states, so in many cases, this requirement could be met relatively easily.
The potential payoff could be huge. With adequate training, suitably qualified technicians could handle additional order-fulfillment jobs. Perhaps those jobs could include prescription refills—a task that requires a certain level of knowledge, but not a trained pharmacist's judgment.
Once routine work has been safely reassigned, pharmacists can focus on new areas. We could save the health care system billions of dollars a year just by improving patient adherence to medication, for example. By finding a way to safely expand the responsibilities of qualified pharmacy technicians, we will open up new roles for ourselves—increasing our value to society and ensuring survival in a competitive health care system.