--Sir William Osler
What is a Pharmacist?
Ask someone to describe a pharmacist, and he'll probably picture a person in a white coat standing behind the counter of the local drug store filling prescriptions. While this image still holds true somewhat, the job of the pharmacist has evolved just as much as the prescriptions she dispenses. The pharmacist is now a vital collaborator in the entire healthcare process.
As newer and more complicated drugs enter the marketplace, pharmacists are the ones who fill patient prescriptions for these drugs and explain how to use them. Consumers today are more educated about health products and have more questions about the treatments physicians prescribe for them. As a result, it falls upon the neighborhood pharmacist to provide more personal attention to the needs of the medical consumer.
In institutional settings, pharmacists are an integral part of the total healthcare team. No longer do they occupy the basement office, filling prescriptions and answering the occasional question from the physician. The expertise of the pharmacist is needed to advise physicians and establish policies as drug therapies get more and more complicated.
As the profession becomes more complicated, the education of pharmacists has followed suit. Pharmacy training more closely resembles medical school, which can include additional years of study as well as residencies and fellowships in a variety of specialties. Students who want a career that provides substantial earnings and is virtually recession-proof should consider the pharmacy industry. With a growing elderly population and tremendous advances being made in the development of pharmaceuticals, it is a profession that will only grow in importance and opportunity in the coming decades.
Students who wish to enjoy this growing industry without spending years in school, or who wish to get their foot in the door of the workplace before they enroll, may choose to start out as pharmacy technicians. These professionals assist the pharmacist in labeling and filling prescriptions, providing customer service and performing administrative duties. Pharmacy technician training is faster and less demanding than pharmacy school, and opens the door for a pharmacy degree later on, if the student so desires.
What Do Pharmacists Do?
Studies have shown that consumers interact with pharmacists at an average of 12 to 15 times each year. They might see doctors only three or four times a year. Because of the frequency of visits, a pharmacist is often in a better position to monitor the progress of patients and their responses to medications. It may also be a reason that pharmacists are continually ranked in polls as the most trustworthy of professionals.
The most common association with pharmacists is as a dispenser of drugs and medications. However, a pharmacist's work neither begins nor ends with filling prescriptions. The mixing of the ingredients to create the prescriptions (a practice called compounding) is really a small part of a pharmacist's responsibilities. Pharmacists often work with physicians and other medical professionals to provide information about drug dosages, side effects, and interactions with other medications.
Decisions made by pharmacists can sometimes mean the difference between life and death for a patient. If a pharmacist is not familiar with the composition of drugs and their clinical effects, or if he does not have enough familiarity with a patient, the patient can suffer serious reactions as a consequence. Pharmacists must not only know and understand this information, but must always counsel their patients as to the effects and possible consequences of the medications.
Pharmacists provide similar advice to physicians and other healthcare professionals. As experts on the effects of medications, they can assist doctors in providing proper prescriptions for their patients. They can also advise physicians about the possible side effects of a particular type of medication or its potential for interaction with other medications.
Planning for a Pharmacy Career
If you are thinking about a career in pharmaceuticals, you might want to ask yourself these questions:
- Are you good at math and science? The more you enjoy these subjects and the better your grades in them, the easier it will be to get through the necessary coursework.
- Do you enjoy working with people? Most pharmacy jobs require considerable interaction with patients who have serious questions about their health and treatment. If you are not a "people person," there are also opportunities in lab research.
- Do you pay attention to the details? Your work directly affects the lives and lifestyles of the people with whom you interact. Therefore, it is essential that you closely monitor every aspect of the job.
- Do you enjoy sitting at a desk? If so, pharmacy might not be the right career choice. Pharmacists must meet with patients, physicians, sales reps, and others. Often this means getting out of the office or traveling.
- Are flexible hours appealing to you? Pharmacists can establish their own hours to a large extent, especially if they operate their own business.
Pharmacy Career Education
If you have a strong aptitude for science, a desire to help others, an ability to pay close attention to small details, and good communication skills, you're more likely to succeed in this field. High school students should take classes in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics to prepare for the pre-pharmacy curriculum in college. Computer skills will also be extremely valuable.
In college, students should expect to complete courses in math, chemistry, biology, physics, calculus and human anatomy in preparation for entry into a pharmacy program. Courses in the social sciences, humanities, written and oral communication, and economics are among those typically required of the pre-pharmacy student.
All pharmacy students will undertake similar amounts of clinical activity. They also must pass a test for licensing, which means that qualifications for pharmacists are very similar. Therefore, job hunters need to consider how to stand out from the pack. Look for activities that will provide an edge, such as joining student pharmaceutical associations or publishing peer-reviewed articles. Along with the knowledge gained from college classes, these activities show qualities of leadership and a commitment to the profession that attracts the attention of employers.
About half of the colleges and universities offering online degree programs in pharmacy studies also require applicants to complete the Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT). Many colleges participate in the Pharmacy Application Service, which allows students to enter their applications into a centralized database with a single set of transcripts that can be used to apply to several programs.
Do I Need an Advanced Degree to Be a Pharmacist?
The degree in pharmacy has changed in recent years to more closely resemble other medical professions. Typically, the bachelor's degree in pharmacy has been replaced by the Doctor of Pharmacy degree (Pharm.D.), a six-year program that includes at least two years of pre-pharmacy courses.
Some colleges do offer master's degrees and PhDs that are awarded after the Pharm.D. These degrees are not necessary to work as a professional pharmacist. Pharmacists who intend to do research or teach at a university are more likely to obtain an advanced degree. Pharmacists who want to run their own businesses or advance into management might obtain a master's in business administration (MBA).
Students who aren't ready for pharmacy school yet often start out as pharmacy technicians, a career which requires less intensive training. Distance learning pharmacy tech programs cover such topics as receiving and preparing prescriptions, verifying insurance information, and assisting the pharmacist.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Pharmacy Studies?
Pharmacists held about 269,900 jobs in 2008, reports the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 65 percent of those worked in retail settings (community pharmacists), and 22 percent worked in hospitals. A small proportion worked in mail-order and Internet pharmacies, pharmaceutical wholesalers, offices of physicians, and the Federal Government. Here are some of the specialized professional areas in which a pharmacist might work:
- Community pharmacist
The community pharmacist role requires people skills in addition to all of the other qualifications. These pharmacists are often a patient's primary source of health information. Community pharmacists do everything from discussing treatments for simple aches and pains to comforting people with serious afflictions. Community pharmacists have recently taken a more active role in healthcare by becoming certified to vaccinate patients against influenza and pneumonia.
Because the majority of community pharmacies are chain-owned, pharmacists have the opportunity to move into management positions at the regional and district levels. They may even move into corporate-level positions. Here the pharmacist combines professional expertise with business skills to create policies and programs that govern how other pharmacists operate within the chain.
- Independent community pharmacist
The image of the friendly neighborhood pharmacist seen in old black-and-white movies lives on, at least in part. Many pharmacists own their own businesses, which can become the heart and soul of small communities. Recent figures show that there are more than 24,000 independently owned pharmacies in the United States. For the pharmacist, this presents the opportunity to call the shots in how the entire business operates and to become an essential part of the community.
- Hospital and institutional pharmacist
In this capacity, pharmacists are physically much more a part of the healthcare team. They work with physicians, nurses, and other professionals to create a pharmaceutical plan for the institution as a whole and for the patient as an individual. They also design the system for dispensing the appropriate medications and oversee the record-keeping system for each patient. Depending on their size, some institutions might have pharmacists who specialize in areas such nuclear pharmacy, drug and poison information, and intravenous therapy.
- Managed-care pharmacist
Health maintenance organizations (HMOs), preferred provider organizations (PPOs), and other managed care systems have taken on greater roles in the health system during the past quarter-century. This means more opportunities for pharmacists to have input in the design and delivery of pharmaceutical programs. HMO pharmacists participate in research efforts, disease management, drug utilization review, cost analysis, and more. This allows the pharmacist to participate in a comprehensive program to determine the best pharmaceutical treatment for patients.
- Consulting pharmacist
This professional cohort primarily serves nursing homes and other long-term care facilities such as adult day care, correctional facilities, and individuals confined to their homes. The elderly are an important focus of this pharmacy practice. Pharmacists must be knowledgeable about this segment of the population and the effects of long-term drug therapies, interactions with other medications, and excessive use of medications. Consulting pharmacists might also employ other healthcare professionals such as nurses, dietitians, lab personnel, and others.
- Academic pharmacist
More than 3,000 pharmacists work in the nation's colleges and universities. While their primary function is to instruct an upcoming generation of pharmacists, faculty members can also be engaged in research, publishing, consulting, and public service activities. Colleges report an extreme shortage of people trained to serve in these academic functions.
- Pharmaceutical researcher
Large corporations that create and distribute pharmaceuticals need pharmacists for a variety of functions. These can be divided into four broad categories: sales and marketing; research and development; production and quality control; and management and administration. Sales and marketing might be the simplest means to a pharmacy career, especially for the non-science oriented. These representatives are asked to take the product to the public, presenting demonstrations and developing sales plans.
Researchers work in the laboratory, conducting projects to develop new drug treatments or to improve existing ones. Production and quality control follow next in the process, to determine the most effective means of producing a new medication so that it adheres to strict safety standards. Pharmacists involved in administration usually work their way up or prepare themselves by receiving additional training in business or law.
- Government agencies
While the vast majority of pharmacists work in the private sector, a great many opportunities exist in government work as well. Federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the armed services, and others need pharmacists for both research and patient treatment functions. Nearly every state has an agency that employs pharmacists as executive officers.
Pharmacists can apply their expertise in other full or part-time opportunities. Some may research and write for scientific and trade journals, some may become part of professional organizations or drug information centers, and some may become involved with the marketing and advertising of pharmaceuticals. Here are some areas of specialty for pharmacists:
- Compounding Pharmacist
- Drug Information Specialist
- Hospice Pharmacist
- Infectious Disease Pharmacist
- Nuclear Pharmacist
- Nutrition Support Pharmacist
- Oncology Pharmacist
- Operating Room Pharmacist
- Pediatric Pharmacist
- Poison Control Pharmacist
- Psychiatric Pharmacist
- Veterinary Pharmacist
The emerging field of pharmogenomics is providing another career option for pharmacists. This field is involved in the study of how a patient's genetic variations may account for differences in reaction to drug treatments. Developments in this area should mean improvements in how medications are prescribed in the future, as well as providing new research opportunities for pharmacists.
Certification, Licensure and Associations
A license is required to become a practicing pharmacist in the United States. Students generally take the state examination after graduating from a college of pharmacy that has been accredited by the American Council on Pharmaceutical Education (ACPE). All states require successful completion of the North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAFLEX). Potential pharmacists in every state except California must also pass the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE). California requires the California Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam rather than the MPJE. Other requirements may change from state to state, and a license in one state does not always mean that one can practice in another state. Be sure to check state requirements, which can be obtained from each state's Board of Pharmacy.
Because of critical ethical considerations, pharmacy is among the most regulated of professions. State boards of pharmacy, which usually consist of pharmacists from a variety of practice areas, establish the regulations and standards for those areas and monitor compliance. Some of the important regulations include ensuring that pharmacists conduct patient histories, check current medications, and interact with the patient. The boards also set limits on how drugs are dispensed and on the confidentiality of patient records. For information on pharmacy as a career, preprofessional and professional requirements, programs offered by colleges of pharmacy, and student financial aid, contact:
General information on careers in pharmacy is available from:
Information on NAPLEX and MPJE is available from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
- Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy
- American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy
- American College of Clinical Pharmacy
- American Pharmacists Association
- American Society of Consultant Pharmacists
- American Society of Health-System Pharmacists
- National Association of Chain Drug Stores
- National Community Pharmacists Association
- National Pharmaceutical Association