Until the middle of the 20th century, when mass manufacturing took over, most pharmacies prepared drugs to order for each customer. That process is called compounding, and it has made a comeback in many places. Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians in compounding pharmacies can make up custom dosages; avoid allergens, such as gluten; or make gelatin-free capsules for vegetarians. If you're a pharmacy technician, compounding is a good skill set to master.
Changing the Form
One of the main motivations for compounding medications is to change their form into something the patient can deal with. For example, some patients have physical difficulties with swallowing. A compounding pharmacy technician can incorporate their medication into a liquid or gel that's easier to cope with, a cream or ointment that can be applied topically, or a type of candy that can be dissolved on the tongue. That last technique is useful with children, who might otherwise refuse their medications. Alternatively, you could add a favorite flavor to the medication to make it more acceptable.
Changing the Substance
Pharmacists can customize medications for many purposes. For some patients, the mass-market versions of a drug might make it difficult to get the correct dosage. A skilled pharmacy technician can compound a precise dosage at the doctor's order, reducing the risk of adverse effects. You can also combine multiple medications into one pill or capsule, so the patient gets them in exactly the right proportions every time. If you have patients with special needs, such as a gluten or yeast allergy, or if they're averse to animal-based gelatin for religious or ethical reasons, you can compound medications that avoid those elements.
Although compounding custom medications is an important skill set, it probably won't be how you spend the majority of your time. More often you'll be taking care of routine duties, including answering the phone, ordering supplies and interacting with customers. You'll take prescription calls from doctors' offices, or accept prescriptions in person from patients, then fill them. You'll often be responsible for taking payment, whether by ringing in retail customers at the cash register or by submitting insurance claims for processing. You also share responsibility with the pharmacist for keeping up on the regulatory environment, and making sure the pharmacy is compliant with its ethical and legal obligations.
You can become a pharmacy technician through on-the-job training, learning the necessary skills directly from the pharmacist or an experienced pharmacy tech. You can also take a formal training program at a community or vocational college. Certificate programs last a few months, or you can get an associate degree that takes two years. If you want to compound drugs from scratch, more training is better. You can also show your professionalism by getting a pharmacy tech certification through the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board or the National Healthcareer Association. It's voluntary, but it means you meet an objective standard of competence and that you're committed to continuing education.
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.