Rx TECHNICIANS: Taking Over Pharmacists’ Duties
As more Americans purchase prescription drugs and pharmacists become overwhelmed with work, pharmacy technicians "shoulder much of the pharmacist's job," but at the same time "lack the pharmacist's expertise, face little regulation and sometimes .... dispense drugs with little oversight from pharmacists," the AP/Contra Costa Times reports. While pharmacy technicians generally are not required to be licensed or even trained, they have "helped the nation's drugstores to flourish despite shrinking profit margins." Techs' duties generally entail calling doctors to authorize prescription refills, pulling drugs off stock shelves, filling prescription bottles, entering prescriptions into computers, typing up labels and ringing up sales. Also, 37 states and the District of Columbia allow techs to mix drugs from raw chemicals. Pharmacists, then, supervise technicians' work, dispense drugs, check for dangerous interactions and explain to consumers how to take medications. Most states limit the number of technicians each pharmacist can supervise, but pharmacies are putting pressure on the states to expand those limits.
Despite waning oversight, a 1998 study by the Virginia Board of Pharmacy found that pharmacists were catching about 6 1/2 technician mistakes per week. The study examined the responses of about half of the state's 1,590 drugstores. Fifty-five percent of the mistakes involved the wrong drug, 22% the wrong instructions and 16% the wrong dose or quantity. Pharmacist June Carpenter wrote to the board in 1996, arguing, "We have lost control of our profession. We must rely on technicians to do the work because the pharmacist only has time to quickly check behind them." Although pharmacists shoulder the blame when a tech makes a mistake, many said they "simply don't have the time" to check a tech's work.
Some states are beginning to take steps to prevent further mistakes. Utah techs must pass an exam on drugs and state pharmacy regulations and then rewards techs by paying them nearly $10 an hour, compared to the $5.75 some California pharmacies pay. In Texas, by next year a state law will require most technicians to pass a certification test. Houston tech Kelly Fash said, "For the majority of technicians that are hired off the street, certification is needed, because they're taking anybody and letting them work in the pharmacy department." As it stands, most techs receive on-the-job training. Ralph Vogel, president of the Guild for Professional Pharmacists, said, "You could become a technician today, walk into a pharmacy and start filling prescriptions. That's the problem." Still, some believe the tests "aren't always a good measure of a technician's knowledge." Ryan Lee, a member of Utah's Board of Pharmacy, said, "I thought it was too simple. It took me 20 minutes and I was done with a 100-question exam. ... They were so desperate. If you had a pulse, they'd hire you" (Hendren, 2/14).