Career Opportunity: More than Counting Pills

Employment in the health care field can be an exciting and rewarding career. Helping patients feel their best, heal their illnesses or ease their pain may provide a great deal of job satisfaction.

There are so many unique and varied positions in the health care profession that it can sometimes be a daunting task for a student to decide where to focus their studies.

High school students with an aptitude for science and math may wish to consider a career in pharmacy, as either a pharmacist or a pharmacy technician. Other important assets for pupils contemplating this type of position include good personal communication skills and being detail-oriented. As both pharmacists and pharmacy technicians play an important and personal role in their patients’ lives, they should also be compassionate, tolerant and attentive.

In addition to dispensing medications, a licensed pharmacist may be responsible for helping to manage chronic diseases, performing reviews on medications and providing immunization services. Most provinces permit pharmacists to prescribe certain types of medications which assists patients by providing a more convenient prescription refill option, and relieves some of the pressure on physicians in clinics, hospitals and community care centres. To become a pharmacist in Canada, students must obtain a pharmacy degree from one of 10 national universities, complete board examinations and receive practical experience as an intern or apprentice.

Sandra Kehoe is a licensed pharmacist practicing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She explains the post-secondary education process for becoming a pharmacist, “When I attended (20ish years ago), it was three years in the Faculty of Pharmacy with at least one prerequisite year (minimum four years). Currently (and since the mid-1990s), it is four years with at least one prerequisite year (minimum five years university) after which one graduates with a Bachelor of Science Pharmacy (BScPharm). It should be noted that the program is being revamped again. It’s a work in progress but I understand the proposed plan to be that the program will become an entry level Pharm D (Doctorate in Pharmacy) program. It will still be a four-year program but might expand the prerequisite to two years. All graduates would finish with an advanced degree as opposed to getting a BScPharm plus obtaining a two-year after degree.”

Areas of post-secondary study generally include chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, nutrition, toxicology and pharmacology.

Currently, there are approximately 39,000 licensed pharmacists in Canada. They are employed in retail pharmacies, hospitals, colleges and universities, government institutions, health science research institutes and pharmaceutical industries, and play an important role in the health care system.

As Kehoe describes, “A pharmacy, whether in a hospital or a retail store, cannot open without a pharmacist. Many tasks can be done by pharmacy assistants and/or technicians but their work must be verified by a pharmacist. Additionally, any drug/medication question, advice, patient education or professional judgement requires a pharmacist.”

A recent pharmacy graduate can expect to receive approximately $100,000 per year as a starting salary. From there, remuneration can vary depending upon place of employment. A pharmacist who chooses to own their own pharmacy can earn significantly more.

“Personally, I have not once regretted my decision to become a pharmacist and would make it again. After 20 years, I can honestly say that I continue to be challenged every day with new therapies and situations. The profession’s good wage has also afforded me the luxury of choice – for example, opting to work part-time at the age of 36 years old,” advises Kehoe.

Pharmacy technicians are responsible for preparing and dispensing medications under the supervision of the pharmacist, inventory control and interacting with patients. The Pharmacy Technician program is accessible through many colleges across the country and generally takes about two years to complete.

Leslie Addison has been a pharmacy technician in Manitoba for almost 30 years. “The pharmacy tech role is very important in the business. We are the first contact any customer makes, we need to get all the required information from the patient to set up a file and get the prescription filled. Techs are the labour in the pharmacy. We do everything from important tasks to mundane (filling vials and taking out garbage). We try to take care of everything so the pharmacist can counsel patients on new meds, answer in-store questions from customers, take new prescription orders from doctors by phone, give injections and check the work we have done before it can be sold,” she explains.

Areas of employment for pharmacy technicians include retail and hospital pharmacies, research companies, educational institutions, third-party insurance companies, computer software development companies and government agencies.

Pharmacy technicians may earn anywhere from $15-$25 per hour.

During the usually two-year course of study, students will learn basic anatomy, physiology, pharmacology fundamentals, how to make pharmaceutical calculations, compounding practices, hospital and community pharmacy dispensing, medical terminology and communications.

Both pharmacists and pharmacy technicians may be required to complete a certain number of hours of continuing education each year. The ongoing development of new medications, research and usage of current medications and possible withdrawals of certain drugs from the marketplace mean that it is extremely important to stay up-to-date with all of the latest innovations.

Depending upon where a pharmacist or pharmacy tech accepts employment, the hours and nature of work will vary. For example, retail pharmacy positions may require late hours, evening/weekend shifts and working on statutory holidays. Hospital pharmacies are usually open 24 hours a day. Both positions require a lot of standing, stretching and bending. In addition, pharmacists and pharmacy techs may experience a high level of stress due to the fact that making an error can cause a significant health risk, or even death, to a patient. Dealing with patients who may be facing serious health complications or terminal diseases can also be emotionally stressful. However, being part of a team that helps a patient overcome their illness and regain their health can be a very rewarding experience.

The future of employment in the pharmaceutical industry is growing. According to StatsCan, in 2014, 15% of our country’s population was aged 65 years or older. That is expected to grow to 24% by 2034 resulting in an increased demand for qualified personnel. Whether a high school student chooses to pursue the occupation of pharmacist or pharmacy technician, focusing their studies on biology, chemistry, physics, math and English will help give them a good foundation for their future studies.

By: Jackie Fritz