Not enough time to do everything. Too much of the day spent on routine tasks such as dispensing refills, instead of consulting with patients. Sound familiar? It should, because it is a situation faced by many of us. And, with the continuing shortage of pharmacists, it is not likely to go away soon. With that in mind, perhaps it's time to grasp a thorny issue: whether to further expand the role of pharmacy technicians to include some basic, nonjudgmental tasks that currently are restricted to pharmacists.
It is a topic that has remained controversial, and of course many pharmacists have legitimate concerns about giving technicians wider responsibilities. For instance, it is still the case that training and skills vary widely among pharmacy technicians, despite moves to establish and promote the use of accredited training and certification programs. If technicians could take on additional roles, though, it could help reduce workload and free pharmacists to focus on other tasks requiring judgment and a higher level of expertise.
One potential role that could be taken on by technicians with appropriate skills is refilling prescriptions. It can be argued that, in most cases, refilling a prescription is not a judgmental activity. The pharmacist's judgment is called for when dispensing the initial prescription; after that, refills could routinely be handled by technicians working independently.
How might this work? For a possible model, we can look to the established "tech-check-tech" practice in hospital pharmacies, where technicians routinely fill unit-dose carts, and other technicians check their work. Some studies have suggested that technicians can actually perform these jobs more accurately than pharmacists.
Perhaps a similar approach could be used in a retail setting to provide technicians with a clearly defined, independent prescription-refill role. Of course, technicians would need an appropriate level of skill before being allowed to take on the job. To ensure that, expansion of responsibility could be tied to completion of accredited training programs and examinations.
Technicians that take on these additional responsibilities might also be rewarded with a bigger paycheck, which in turn might help ensure that they stay in the job longer, gaining experience and becoming more useful to the pharmacy.
Giving technicians expanded roles may not be easy; but it could be a boon for pharmacists, not a threat.
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.
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