Last Updated: Jul 13, 2011
One of the most trusted and accessible health care professionals, pharmacists are the medication experts. But few understand the educational background and diverse opportunities available in pharmacy, or how the profession is evolving in many exciting ways.
A pharmacist’s work
When people think of pharmacists, they often imagine someone standing behind a counter in a white coat, dispensing medications. But behind the scenes, pharmacists work closely with physicians and other health care professionals to discuss patient conditions and treatments. If the recommended medications are too expensive for the patient, pharmacists may consult with doctors or insurance companies to help find less costly treatments that produce the desired outcome. And while pharmaceutical companies manufacture most drugs, pharmacists still “compound” or make drug products that may not be easily or widely available.
As pharmacists’ responsibilities have expanded, many are moving out from behind the counter to do more than just talk with patients about their prescriptions or recommend over-the-counter medications. Today’s pharmacists can take a patient’s blood pressure and help interpret the results. They can become certified to provide immunizations for pneumonia and influenza to patients with a physician order. Increasingly, they can offer educational programs about certain diseases, such as diabetes.
This evolution underscores pharmacy’s shift from a product-centered to a patient-centered profession. What does this mean? Traditionally pharmacy has been focused on providing the right drug product to the right patient at the right time. While that’s still true, pharmacists are now involved in more patient-centered care. This includes asking questions like, Does the patient even need the drug? If so, which is the best and safest one? Is it dosed correctly based on the person’s age, weight, and medical history? The pharmacist is more closely involved with helping patients manage their health, rather than simply recommending or dispensing a product for a given ailment.
Just as pharmacists have differing roles and responsibilities, they can also work in varied settings. While approximately two-thirds of pharmacists work in drug stores, or “community pharmacies,” pharmacists can be found in hospitals, physicians’ offices, emergency rooms, nursing homes, and urgent care centers, to name a few. Wherever you can imagine a physician, imagine a pharmacist there as well. Beyond direct patient care, pharmaceutical opportunities exist in health maintenance organizations (HMO’s), insurance companies, or the government. Others may choose academia, helping educate the next generation of pharmacists.
While it’s not a requirement, the chances of moving into a management position in any pharmacy or health-related organization are enhanced with a graduate degree like a master’s in business administration (M.B.A.) or even a law degree. Some schools offer joint degree programs, allowing students to pursue multiple degrees concurrently, saving significant time and money.
So how do you know if pharmacy is the profession for you? While there is no formula for making such a decision, most pharmacy students do share certain characteristics. First and foremost, they want to help people—something pharmacists do on a regular basis. Pharmacy students often enjoy and excel in high school classes such as biology, chemistry, and physics, which provide a critical foundation for the advanced science-based course work that awaits them in college.
The pharm school admission process
In addition to academic achievement, admission counselors need to see students have a fundamental understanding of the pharmacist’s role and can articulate why they would like to join the profession. Admission counselors place a high value on students with work or volunteer experience in a pharmacy or health care setting, though this is not required. They also want to see students in leadership positions, including extracurricular organizations or sports, which often develop the ability to think on one’s feet and manage difficult situations.
To practice pharmacy in the United States, you must obtain a Doctor of Pharmacy degree (Pharm.D.). Students who enter pharmacy programs directly from high school can complete the degree in six years. Those who are not prepared to make such a commitment can pursue the Pharm.D. after receiving an associate or bachelor’s degree. (For these students, it’s usually six to eight years from the time they graduate from high school.)
For those entering directly from high school, the first two years of the curriculum—the pre-pharmacy program—combine traditional liberal arts course work (e.g., writing, public speaking) with a strong emphasis on math and science (e.g., organic chemistry, microbiology, calculus). The professional pharmacy program then begins the third year of college and typically lasts four years.
Depending on the school, students who complete the pre-pharmacy program may have to reapply and compete with other students, including their pre-pharmacy classmates, to be accepted into the professional program. Conversely, at some colleges, pre-pharmacy students are guaranteed a place in a professional program if they meet certain requirements, which may include, but are not limited to, a minimum GPA, successful completion of the Pharmacy College Aptitude Test (PCAT), an interview, and/or a writing assessment.
The first three years of the professional pharmacy program focus on classroom study with a mix of introductory hands-on learning experiences in different health settings. The fourth and final year of the program moves completely outside the classroom and is comprised of several advanced pharmacy “rotations” or internships. Through the rotations (averaging six weeks), students can apply their knowledge at community pharmacies, hospitals, research laboratories, government offices, pharmaceutical firms, and more. The rotation is the culmination of the professional program, providing critical “real world” learning experiences, building relationships that may lead to employment offers, and helping students decide which area of pharmacy is the best fit for their interests.
Like law and medical students, pharmacy students must take a national licensure exam following graduation: the North American Pharmacy Licensure Exam (NAPLEX). Each state also has its own separate licensure exam, tailored to reflect the laws governing pharmacy in that particular state.
The career ahead
It can be a challenging road, but the rewards are substantial. Once you identify your path in pharmacy, you will find a profession with above-average employment prospects and salaries. Several short- and long-term trends indicate the future for pharmacists will remain bright for years to come. As new and more complex drugs come to market, patients will increasingly depend on pharmacists to help them understand and manage these medications. And the passage of the 2010 health care reform bill (The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) will expand health care coverage to many more Americans, which is expected to spur the need for more pharmacists and other health professionals.
Accordingly, the job outlook for pharmacists continues to be very strong. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the demand for pharmacists is expected to grow 17% between 2008 and 2018—faster than the average for all occupations. This is, in part, why they earn excellent salaries. As of May 2009, the median annual salary for pharmacists was $109,180, according to the BLS. The middle 50% earned between $95,780 and $123,330 a year. Salaries increase based on longevity, achievement, and moving into management or executive positions.
Pharmacists play a key role in keeping people healthy. From counseling patients on proper use of their medications to developing proactive health programs, pharmacists make a difference in many lives. For those who choose to pursue this dynamic profession, that may be the greatest reward of all.
Gina Garrison, Pharm.D., is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Albany, New York.