Helping Hands

August 5, 2002

Despite taking on more responsibilities, technicians feel they don't have much room for advancement

 

COVER STORY

Exclusive Drug Topics survey

HELPING HANDS

Despite taking on more responsibilities, technicians feel they don't have much room for advancement

They say there's a first time for everything. Since technicians are playing an increasingly important role in the workflow of today's pharmacy, we at Drug Topics decided to conduct our first-ever survey of pharmacy technicians. The findings provide an interesting counterpoint to a 1999 Drug Topics survey of pharmacists and their views on their ancillary personnel.

Our exclusive survey of technicians covered their duties, training, salaries, opinion about the practice of tech-check-tech, and several other topics. A four-page questionnaire was mailed out to 1,000 pharmacy technicians randomly selected from the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) mailing list. A total of 265 techs responded, for a response rate of 27%.

Of the survey respondents, 88% were women whose average age is 31 and average number of years in practice is six. All pharmacy settings were represented, with more than half (58%) of the technicians reporting that they practiced in a chain pharmacy (four or more stores), 19% in a hospital pharmacy, 12% in an independent pharmacy (one to three stores), 4% in a clinic pharmacy, 2% in a mail-order pharmacy, and 6% in another type of pharmacy. Four out of 10 respondents practiced in suburbia, 34% in urban locations, and 25% in rural settings. Response rates from the four regions of the country were 47% from the South, 21% from the Midwest, 18% from the West, and 14% from the East.

How many technicians, R.Ph.s?

Technicians reported that their pharmacy employed an average of nine technicians, including themselves. Most retail pharmacies employed three to six technicians. Of respondents who worked in retail pharmacies, the highest percentage (19%) said that their pharmacy employed four technicians. Most hospital pharmacies, on the other hand, employed 30 or more technicians. Of those who worked in hospital pharmacies, the highest percentage (26%) said their pharmacy employed 30 or more technicians.

Respondents said that their pharmacies employed an average of six pharmacists. Most retail pharmacies employed two to four pharmacists. Of the technicians who worked in a retail setting, the highest percentage (33.7%) said that their pharmacy employed two R.Ph.s, and 33.2% said their pharmacy employed three R.Ph.s. Most hospital pharmacies employed 20 or more pharmacists. Of those who worked in a hos-pital setting, the highest percentage (34.7%) reported that their pharmacy employed 20 or more pharmacists.

Compared with pharmacies in suburban (a mean of 7.5 pharmacy technicians and five pharmacists) or rural areas (a mean of seven pharmacy techs and five pharmacists), pharmacies in urban areas employed a higher mean number of pharmacy technicians (11.5) and pharmacists (nine).

The R.Ph.-to-tech ratio

When technicians were polled regarding the current ratio of pharmacists to technicians in their state, their responses were varied. The most frequently mentioned ratios were one pharmacist to two technicians (38%) and one pharmacist to three technicians (21%).

Most respondents (55%) were satisfied with their state's R.Ph.-to-tech ratio and felt it should remain the same. On the other hand, 40% of respondents felt that more technicians should be employed per pharmacist, while 5% of respondents felt that fewer technicians should be employed per pharmacist.

These findings are similar to those of Drug Topics' 1999 survey of pharmacists. According to those results, almost 60% of pharmacists were satisfied with their state's R.Ph.-to-tech ratio. At the time, however, the number of techs employed per pharmacist was slightly lower. Respondents reported that the R.Ph.-to-tech ratio was generally 1:1 or 1:2.

Job description

For technicians who work in a retail setting, the five most frequently performed tasks were placing medication into the prescription container (99% of respondents), entering prescriptions into the pharmacy computer (96%), ringing up customer purchases (95%), preparing Rx labels (95%), and entering information into a patient's file (95%). For those who work in a hospital setting, the five most frequently performed tasks were bringing medications to nursing floors (85%), preparing packaging for unit-dose medications (85%), maintaining inventory (80%), preparing IV drips (76%), and filling medication carts (73%). In the 1999 pharmacist survey, R.Ph.s reported that their techs most frequently performed these same tasks.

When techs who work in a retail setting were asked about other tasks they perform, their responses ranged from "keep books" to "clean pharmacy" to "hire/counsel employees" to "mix compound meds." A male technician from the East simply said, "I do everything." When technicians who work in a hospital were asked about their other duties, their responses ranged from "compounding" to "troubleshoot med machines in nursing stations and carry pager for stat orders" to "problem-solve with distributors" and "all sales calls referred to me."

Technicians' duties and functions have increased in their pharmacy over the past two years, said 86% of respondents. More than half (54%) of techs feel they help alleviate 51%-75% of the pharmacists' workload, almost a third (31%) think they relieve up to 100% of R.Ph.s' duties, while 15% believe they assist R.Ph.s to a lesser extent. According to the 1999 survey, 80% of R.Ph.s felt that their techs' duties and functions had increased over the previous two years. Almost all of the respondents to that survey felt technicians alleviated their workload.

The technician's role

A majority of respondents (78%) said there are not any functions they wish their state pharmacy board would allow them to engage in that they are not currently permitted to perform. Female techs were significantly more likely to feel this way (81% of female respondents compared with 61% of male respondents).

When technicians were asked what additional functions they would like to be allowed to perform, the most common responses were counseling patients and accepting phoned-in prescriptions. The 1999 survey found that approximately 20% of R.Ph.s felt their state pharmacy boards should allow technicians to do more. Several respondents to that survey also wanted their techs to be permitted to accept called-in Rxs. Some R.Ph.s expressed concern, however, because pharmacists are liable for the actions of their technicians.

Where do I go from here?

More than seven out of 10 technicians who responded to our survey do not plan to go on to pharmacy school. Although 66% of respondents feel that their skills are being used to the fullest advantage, most technicians felt that they had only limited opportunities for advancement. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being no opportunity for advancement and 5 being high opportunity for advancement, the average response was 2.

Some techs feel their talents are underestimated. Said a female tech from the South, "I feel capable of doing much more than we are allowed—one pharmacist lets us do refills, and so on, while the other one doesn't." "My skills are being limited by my pharmacy manager," added a female technician from the West. Some respondents are taking a proactive approach to the problem. A female tech from the South said, "I am going to school for microcomputer applications. I feel that I do not spend enough time on my computer skills at work."

On the other hand, some technicians feel their skills are being used to the greatest advantage. A female tech in the East said, "I am trusted by the pharmacists to be accurate and efficient; therefore, I take on many responsibilities over the other techs." "The head pharmacist relies heavily on me for everything from inventory to filling prescriptions quickly and accurately," said a male technician from the South. Added a female tech in the South, "I'm learning more every day and getting the experience I need to improve."

Technicians reported that they planned to stay in their current position for a mean of five more years. Those in the East planned on staying in their position for a longer period of time (7.63 years) compared with technicians in the other geographic regions (5.79 years in the West, 5.44 years in the Midwest, and 4.52 years in the South). Female technicians planned on staying in their positions longer than their male counterparts (5.45 versus 4.2 years). Respondents who had been working for more than five years as a pharmacy technician planned on staying in their current position longer than those who had been working for fewer than five years (7.01 versus 4.40 years).

Recruiting

Although 46% of respondents reported that the market for new technicians has remained the same over the past two years, 37% of technicians said that recruiting has become more difficult. Only 17% of respondents said that recruiting has become easier during this time period.

Respondents reported an average of two available tech positions at their pharmacy, and 25% of respondents said that their pharmacy had openings for technicians. Of the 44% of respondents who said that their pharmacy uses automated dispensing, 7% had seen technicians displaced by the technology.

Training

Most respondents (90%) said that they received on-the-job training. Some pharmacy technicians (16%) reported that they received their training at a community college or vocational school. Only 1% of respondents said that they did not receive any formal training, and 15% indicated they received some "other" form of training. When technicians were asked to describe this other form of training, their responses ranged from "received training in the U.S. Army" to "self-taught using textbooks and flash cards" to "self-taught using the Internet" to "self-taught using a video." Some respondents said they had taken classes offered through their employer.

The PTCB exam

All respondents had taken the PTCB exam to become certified technicians. The entire cost of the exam was covered by 71% of respondents' employers. Partial coverage of the cost was provided by 2% of employers, and 27% of employers provided no coverage of the cost.

Most technicians felt that the PTCB exam was relatively difficult. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all difficult and 10 being extremely difficult, the average response was a 7.

Job responsibilities did not increase for 64% of technicians as a result of passing the PTCB exam. Responsibilities did increase, however, for 32% of respondents, and 4% of technicians said that they started their current jobs after passing the exam. Additional responsibilities included accepting called-in prescriptions from doctors' offices, gaining access to the narcotics vault, labeling prescription bottles, and talking to patients about interactions and being able to consult with them.

Nearly two-thirds (62%) of respondents reported that they received a raise when they passed the PTCB exam. More than one-third (34%) did not receive a raise, and 4% started their current positions after passing the exam. Of those who received one, the mean raise was 10%. On average, male technicians received a heftier percentage raise than female techs (11.88% versus 10.01%), and technicians in the South received a greater percentage raise (12.46%) compared with those in other regions (9.07% in the West, 8.27% in the Midwest, and 5.62% in the East).

Salary

Most respondents (96%) were paid on an hourly basis, with the mean hourly wage being $10.47. Only 4% of technicians reported earning an annual salary, with the mean annual salary being $26,860. In general, mean hourly wages for technicians practicing in the West ($11.80 per hour) were higher than those for technicians practicing in other parts of the country ($10.95 in the East, $10.54 in the Midwest, and $9.77 in the South). Male techs were paid slightly more than female techs ($10.80 versus $10.43).

Practice of tech-check-tech

More then half of the respondents (54%) feel that the practice of tech-check-tech, in which a senior technician checks the accuracy of cassette-filling by a less experienced technician in a hospital setting, is not safe. Explained a female tech in the Northeast, "A technician, no matter how experienced, is still not a pharmacist, and is not as educated as a pharmacist." A female tech in the South added, "It sounds simple enough, but mistakes are so common. As techs, we only have to pass a test for our certification, versus many years of schooling to become a pharmacist. Their license is on the line; they should have the last say. Plus, I just feel better about it. I know the patient would, too."

Some technicians feel, however, that tech-check-tech is perfectly safe, and that a trained technician can be as accurate as a pharmacist. A female tech in the South said, "A technician with the right training and enough time can be as precise as a pharmacist." A technician in the East pointed out, "When a technician is proven capable of checking prescriptions, it gives the pharmacist more time to counsel patients. I believe that this is a look toward the future."

Although technicians are taking on more responsibilities in the pharmacy, the survey results indicate that many don't feel there is much room for upward mobility. Most respondents plan to stay in their position for at least a few more years, however, and two-thirds do not plan to go on to pharmacy school to advance their careers.

Charlotte LoBuono

 

 

Figure 2
Job responsibilities by setting

What tasks do technicians working in a retail or hospital setting do most often?

Retail

Place medication into prescription container—99%

Enter prescription into pharmacy computer—96%

Ring up customers' purchases—95%

Prepare prescription label—95%

Enter information into patient's file—95%

Hospital

Bring medications to nursing floors—85%

Prepare packaging for unit-dose medications—85%

Maintain inventory—80%

Prepare IV drips—76%

Fill med carts—73%

 

 

 

 

Charlotte LoBuono. Helping Hands. Drug Topics 2002;15:59.