Pharmacists are highly educated health professionals who ensure that medication is safely administered to the public. Considered the medication experts of the health care team, pharmacists counsel and educate patients, physicians, and other health practitioners in all aspects of medication to achieve the most beneficial outcome. As the use of prescription medication expands to address the needs of an aging population, pharmacists play an increasingly vital role in managing societyӳ health care. For this reason, demand for pharmacists is expected to remain very high for the foreseeable future and career opportunities for pharmacists are expected to grow along with advances in medication and technology.
What does a pharmacist do?
By drawing on their vast knowledge of medication, pharmacists provide care to patients, both directly and indirectly, in a wide range of occupational settings. While most pharmacists work in community or hospital pharmacies, other pharmacists work for pharmaceutical manufacturers, health insurance companies, government agencies, nursing homes, public health care agencies, or in higher education. Community pharmacists ensure that prescriptions are properly interpreted and filled, check for any adverse drug interactions, and counsel patients regarding the use and potential side effects of medication. Pharmacists maintain confidential records of patientsҠmedications and drug allergies and work with prescribers to select the appropriate medication and dosage for patients.
A Doctor of Pharmacy degree (Pharm.D.) from an institution accredited by the ACPE (Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education) is required to become a licensed pharmacist in the United States. There are many programs available to prepare students to achieve this goal. Six-year Pharm.D. programs (0-6) accept candidates directly from high school and graduates can become licensed pharmacists.
Although a pharmacy technician can assist the pharmacist in dispensing medication, the pharmacist is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the medication that is given to the customer matches both the label on the bottle as well as the written prescription from the physician or other health practitioner. In addition to this vital responsibility, community pharmacists are also increasingly involved in managing the customer relationship and driving additional business through community outreach programs, such as providing onsite instruction for managing chronic diseases. Pharmacists who enjoy the business aspect of running a pharmacy can earn extra pay by moving into management. In addition to their regular responsibilities, pharmacy managers supervise personnel, create efficient work schedules, and provide creative solutions for improving customer satisfaction.
Pharmacists are rewarded with well-rounded careers that are stable, flexible and lucrative. Typically, pharmacists work 40 hours per week with a flexible schedule and plenty of available over-time. Many pharmacists command six figure salaries in their first position out of pharmacy school. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median salary for licensed pharmacists in 2008 was $106,410, with the top 25% earning $121,310 or more. For pharmacists working in higher education, the average full-time pharmacy professor earns $141,483 and the average full-time dean at a pharmacy school earns $208,675.
What steps should one follow to become a licensed pharmacist?
All pharmacists in the United States, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories are required to be licensed. A license can be obtained by first earning a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D) from a pharmacy college accredited by the Addreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). The pharmacy candidate must then pass several exams.
Here is a more detailed list of the steps necessary to become a pharmacist:
- Get excellent grades in math and the natural sciences, even at the high school level, as these subjects provide the foundation for future studies and exams in pharmaceutical science. Success in high school is especially important for candidates applying to a 6-year Pharm.D. program, as high marks demonstrate scientific aptitude and make the candidateӳ application more competitive.
- Complete Pre-Pharmacy requirements. Sixty to ninety credit hours (2 to 3 years) of college-level coursework are required before starting specialized studies in pharmacy. Although the exact requirements vary from school to school, coursework in the following areas is typically required: physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, statistics, economics, psychology and English composition. Candidates can complete these requirements as part of either a two-year Associates Degree or a four-year Bachelors Degree. There are also six-year Pharm.D. programs that offer the pre-pharmacy coursework during the first two years of study followed by four years of specialized pharmacy curriculum.
- Prepare for the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT) if required by any of the selected schools. The PCAT is necessary for admission to 70% of Pharm.D. programs. This four-hour test is composed of 240 multiple-choice questions and two writing topics. As with many other undergraduate level standardized tests, there is no passing score for the PCAT, although many pharmacy schools require minimum scores.
- Earn a Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree from a pharmacy college accredited by the ACPE. Once the pre-pharmacy requirements have been met, the pharmacy candidate must complete four years of professional study. Major areas of instruction include pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacognosy (understanding drugs obtained from natural sources), pharmacology (studying the action of drugs in the human body), business management, and pharmacy practice (learning how to accurately and efficiently dispense medication). Clinical rotations allow students to apply classroom learning in a wide variety of pharmacy settings. Internship hours, often required for state licensure, are also typically part of the curriculum.
- Take the necessary exams for licensure. The required North American Pharmacist Licensure Exam (NAPLEX) was developed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy to ensure that Pharm.D. graduates have acquired the knowledge to safely practice as licensed pharmacists. The NAPLEX is a multiple-choice, computer-based exam that is four hours and 15 minutes in length. The test is computer-adaptive, meaning that the level of difficulty is adjusted depending upon the accuracy of prior responses. An additional test, the Multistate Pharmacy Jurisprudence Exam (MPJE), is required by 44 states as well as the District of Columbia. This computer-based exam tests the candidateӳ knowledge of the pharmaceutical law in a particular state and ensures that the candidate will follow the rules and regulations of the stateӳ Board of Pharmacy. As the questions on the MPJE are state specific, this exam may need to be taken for each state in which the candidate wishes to obtain licensure.
- Evaluate the pros and cons of different settings. All pharmacists work in clean, well-lit environments; however, different settings require different amounts of customer interaction and specialized knowledge. There can also be a substantial pay differential. Taking the time to find the right fit now will improve job satisfaction throughout a pharmacistӳ career.
How You Can Stand Out as a Pharmacist
Pharmacists are well-respected for their good judgment, close attention to detail, and genuine care for the well-being of their patients. In addition to these characteristics, pharmacists can use the following tips to provide even more value to their clientele:
- Focus on improving customer care. Most pharmacies employ customer satisfaction surveys to gather opinions from their clientele. Excellent pharmacists use this feedback to provide the very highest quality customer experience.
- Stay on top of trends in medicine. The quality of care that a pharmacist provides is directly related to the quantity and quality of the information they retain. Great pharmacists take continuing education classes above and beyond what is required in order to keep their knowledge base current.
- Meet the needs of the community. Excellent pharmacists will identify needs in the community and design programs to meet them. Reaching out to the community expands the pharmacyӳ customer base and enables the pharmacist to develop a rapport with new customers.
- Continually improve communication skills. Pharmacists serve as intermediaries between physicians and patients as well as the pharmacy and the community. They also counsel patients on complex and sensitive health care issues. For these reasons, pharmacists should always strive to have the very best listening and interpersonal skills.
- Consider a post-graduate residency or fellowship. A residency provides additional experience and training that will strengthen a pharmacistӳ clinical, academic, research and leadership skills in the practice of pharmacy.
A career in pharmacy provides an exciting blend of science, patient interaction, technology and business while also being stable, lucrative and flexible. Highly ethical and dedicated people who are good at math and science, have excellent memories, pay careful attention to detail and have strong interpersonal skills will do well in this growing field.
Resources for pharmacists: