Opinion: Training the Technicians

June 9, 2019

Figuring out the equations for quality technicians.

I’ve written a couple of articles about staffing levels, which is the number one concern of community pharmacists. I always say the difference between a good day and a challenging day isn’t the prescription volume, but rather the number and quality of technicians. Lots of formulas exist for the quantity of technicians, but no one can figure out the quality part of the equation.

I hired my first full-time technician in 1984. Darlene O’Connell was 13 years older than me (I was 26), and she was amazing. She could do everything with great neatness and accuracy. When it came to fill out the triplicate NCPDP carbon copy claim forms she was a dynamo. About 10% of all our prescriptions were billed to insurance back in those days. 

Once the computer system became an intrinsic part of pharmacy operations in 1987, Darlene’s role changed. I did the data entry and Darlene counted pills and managed the inventory. She was hardworking and never brought drama to work with her. 

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When I left that small independent chain in 2008, knowing it was going to be sold to one of the big three chains, working with Darlene is what I missed the most. I spent more of my waking hours with her in those days than I did with my own wife.

When I started working for Thompson Pharmacy, my role changed. Techs did all the data entry and the pharmacist did the verification and managed inventory. We had a high school kid named Brad Wigand who talked to me as graduation approached. He said he had no interest in attending college and wanted to go to a technician school to become a pharmacy tech. I told him that was a great idea, and asked what type of pharmacy practice he was interested in. He said he’d love to work for Thompson’s as a tech. I told him to save the $12,000 tuition and I could train him to do everything that we need him to do as a community pharmacy technician.

Brad has a great aptitude for computers and caught on quickly, learning the nuances of billing, split billing, and monitoring underpayments. He calculates insulin day supplies as accurately as I do. He simply is the best data entry tech I’ve worked with. We had him on a long leash and let him polish his skills. Most of all we saved him a year of employment and $12,000! 

I know pharmacy technicians who went to a formal tech school and took out loans and owe more money now than they borrowed. Brad doesn’t need to know IV preparation, how to fill Pyxis machines, or any of the other skills that a hospital pharmacy technician needs to know. 

Technician hours are set by corporate for most pharmacy operations. We can argue and fight with supervisors about levels of staffing. The in-house training of technicians falls directly on the pharmacy staff with ultimate responsibility landing on the shoulders of the pharmacist. 

If our technicians are poorly trained, it is our fault. If they don’t know how to calculate day supplies or abbreviations, we need to take time to coach them along. Most of all we need to give them the opportunity to learn the software and not just push them away from the keyboard and do it ourselves.

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Jim Gregory is our local representative in the Pennsylvania legislature. He texted me about legislation requiring registration of pharmacy techs and to ask about my position on the subject. I texted him back, “Registration-yes, Licensure-no.” 

I have no problem with our employees being registered to work in the pharmacy, but they do not need to be licensed since they are technicians. The word technician is derived from the ancient Greek “tekton,” meaning “to work with one’s hands.”

Whether it is Darlene or Brad, our job is to give our technicians the knowledge to work with their hands, to benefit us as pharmacists and our patients.

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