Pharmacists are busy people. They're the point of contact between the doctors prescribing a medication and the patients getting it, and their job includes advising both doctors and patients on the safe use of pharmaceuticals. They're highly skilled and trained, but many of the duties that make up a pharmacy's daily work don't need that level of expertise. To free up their time and let them focus on more important tasks, most pharmacists employ pharmacy technicians or assistants to help with the routine chores.
Dispensary assistants, also called pharmacy assistants or pharmacy aides, provide the most basic level of service in the pharmacy. You'll be answering phones, accepting prescriptions dropped off by patients, and taking their contact information. You'll sign for incoming inventory and unpack it for storage. You'll usually be responsible for retail displays throughout the prescription area, including over-the-counter medications, blood sugar monitors and other small pieces of retail equipment. Whenever possible, you'll work the cash registers and serve patients and retail customers so the pharmacy technicians can tend to other duties.
Pharmacy technicians have more training than pharmacy assistants. As a pharmacy technician, supporting the pharmacist is your main job. You'll receive prescriptions and take calls from doctors' offices, and query them if the prescription is unclear. When the pharmacist needs a patient's medical history, or information on a specific medication, you're the one who usually tracks it down. You'll also fill, label and package prescriptions for patients, and occasionally, compound medications to order. You'll take payments and process insurance claims. Often, you'll be in charge of maintaining an adequate inventory of pharmaceuticals and supplies, placing orders as needed so the pharmacist won't run out.
Similarities and Differences
In a small or low-volume pharmacy setting, a pharmacist might only hire one technician at a time. High-volume pharmacies might employ several technicians and assistants to handle the flow of patients and retail traffic. A pharmacy assistant often serves primarily as a retail clerk. As a pharmacy technician, you're expected to have a higher level of skill and knowledge, so you can perform many of the pharmacist's lighter duties. In practice, the two jobs often overlap, with technicians handling routine retail chores if there isn't another assistant available.
Pharmacy assistants require no formal training, and learn their skills on the job. Pharmacy technicians can also be trained on the job, and assistants with the right attitudes and aptitudes can become technicians that way. Some technicians take formal training through a one-year certificate program at a vocational or community college. In most states, you'll have to pass an exam and get a state license to work as a technician. You can also earn professional certification through the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board or the National Healthcareer Association. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 32 percent job growth for pharmacy technicians, while O*Net projects a 29 percent job growth for pharmacy assistants.
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.