April 2022 | Mindy Suttlemyre, BS, PhT
I was honored to present “Off the Beaten Path: Exploring Opportunities for Technicians within IDS Pharmacy” at McCreadie Group’s 2021 Research Pharmacy Summit. When asked to be a speaker, I was working at The University of Utah/Huntsman Cancer Hospital IDS as the Lead Pharmacy Technician and was eager to share how Pharmacy Technicians can play a lead role in many facets of a pharmacy, especially in the unique world of IDS. In discussions with colleagues at the summit, one question kept coming up: How can Pharmacy Technicians stay engaged in their careers and continue to build on their skill sets? In response, I would like to share the story of my career as a Pharmacy Technician; it is one filled with curiosity, perpetual learning, and a lot of support from others.
The Beginning of my Journey as a Pharmacy Technician
Learning the basics
I first became aware of a career in pharmacy in high school after a career aptitude test. I learned there was a real need for Pharmacy Technicians and how important they are for pharmacy operations to succeed. Twenty-five years later, the demand for Pharmacy Technicians would still be an ongoing issue.
In my first position, I learned the basics, the building blocks every pharmacy technician knows, the fundamentals that make the pharmacy operate smoothly. I learned there is a proper way to answer the phone and identify who you are. I learned how to count by fives with a spatula and tray. I learned a doctor could put some scribbles on a piece of paper followed by two or three letters and the combination would form patient instructions on how to take medication. I learned basic math needed to calculate patient’s doses. I learned how to order and organize inventory in several diverse ways. I learned basic pharmacy law and the importance of those laws. So, after six months of learning and training, I took the exam and became a licensed pharmacy technician.
The Importance of Customer Service
At the beginning of my career, I learned how essential it is to provide excellent customer service and to build relationships with patients. I got to know many of the customers on a personal level. One of my fondest memories was delivering a sweet lady’s medications to her. She had some challenges due to a recent stroke and was so excited to see me when she opened the door. We started talking and I could see she was trying to make cookies. I stayed for an extra hour as we talked and laughed while baking the cookies for her neighbors. She taught me the power of kindness and how one small gesture can affect the lives of so many.
Building on My Skill Set
I began adding to my skill set by tackling our challenges with inventory. I developed a new process that involved running inventory reports from our wholesaler and comparing it with a patient dispensing report to evaluate the amounts of medications that were dispensed and ordering the amounts needed. I set par levels for each inventory item and made tags to show that level for the shelves. It was not perfect, but I liked that I was given the chance to trouble shoot and produce a solution for the problems we were facing with inventory.
Next, I assumed the role of a billing account specialist. I learned to properly bill each patient’s insurance company for the prescriptions being dispensed as well as obtain any prior authorizations for medications that were not on their insurance’s approval list. I had to learn basic billing account computer modules to charge the patients and how to reconcile payments from both private accounts and insurance companies. I loved the added responsibility and ownership this gave me.
As business kept growing, another need came to the attention of my managers, and I was eager to learn more. I asked if I could be trained in our non-sterile compounding lab. Compounding involves taking raw materials and combining them carefully to make a medication. I learned how to create a recipe, about compounding pack statistics, and techniques for mixing I still use today. I was given the opportunity to travel to compounding conferences to learn about the newest techniques and products. When I returned, I taught the staff about what I learned and was able to assess the pharmacy’s current practice to find improvements. Compounding made me excited to learn, and I guess is where I first started training others. One of my favorite parts of compounding was helping a local allergy doctor with his patients. He had an idea on how to desensitize patients with food and nut allergies. I worked carefully with him, and my pharmacist and I were able to compound medications for his project that changed our patient’s lives. Parents were given peace of mind that their child would be okay to eat at school or a friend’s house. I loved seeing how valuable specialized medicine can be.
Discovering Advanced Pharmacy Technician Roles
As life continued, I had a desire to learn more. I researched Advanced Pharmacy Technician Roles and discovered there were far more opportunities for Pharmacy Technicians than I had ever thought. There were opportunities in prior authorization, clinical pharmacy services, patient discharge, informatics, oncology care model financial specialist, medication reconciliation, immunization specialist, pharmacy analyst, investigational drug service and pharmacy purchasing. I had never known these roles existed, and I was curious to learn more about them.
After a lot of exploration, I decided I wanted to enter the world of Investigational Drug Service (IDS). The IDS pharmacy provides accountability, handling, storage, and control of investigational drugs and assures compliance with the standards of the FDA and of the study sponsor. I had no idea at that time how much I would be stretched. I learned a new language full of acronyms. I learned about the importance of drug accountability, why data needs to be error free, and how to work with physicians, study teams and sponsors on a level I had not understood previously. I also learned how to make complex sterile compounds. I was building on all the previous skills I had learned in retail pharmacy and incorporating them to help improve the IDS pharmacy.
I was encouraged by my management to learn and be innovative, and to keep track of everything I was doing to show how it helped our department. I took upon advanced projects such as reviewing and evaluating the current IDS Policies and Procedures and creating new workflows that better fit the pharmacy’s needs. I felt as if my opinion mattered, and I learned how important collaboration was with my IDS team.
These projects led to me training members outside of IDS on our processes and providing guidance on ways to improve their practice. My managers and leaders saw the work I was doing and created another step on the career ladder at my institution. I was then made the lead IDS technician. This led to reevaluating the career ladder for all pharmacy technicians and creating a clear path with requirements for them to follow to advance in their careers.
Transition to Industry
I loved working in investigational drug services and knowing the work I was doing was affecting drug research around the world. As I continued to train and help others learn about our IDS processes, I wondered if there was an alternative way to use all the skills I had learned as a pharmacy technician. I decided to take an offer made by McCreadie Group as an Account Manager to help with customer accounts for their Vestigo product. I would be able to use the skills I learned throughout my career as a Pharmacy Technician to train and provide guidance to other IDS pharmacies. I am excited for this opportunity to learn and to grow.
Tips for Career Growth
This brings me back to the original question: how can a Pharmacy Technician stay engaged in their careers and continue to build on their skill sets? I have suggestions for both pharmacy technicians and pharmacists/managers.
- – Always be willing to learn
- – Be willing to step outside your comfort level
- – Eagerly help the customer and your team
- – Keep track of all you do and provide examples during evaluations
- – Look for ways to improve current practices and processes
- – Encourage learning and strive to teach your technicians
- – Give your technician more responsibilities to help lighten your load
- – Provide constructive feedback to help them advance in their career
- – Work with your institution to provide a career ladder and the proper training if needed
I hope my reflection illustrates what a rewarding career a Pharmacy Technician can have and how many opportunities and paths there are to explore. I am grateful for those who have been willing to teach and guide me, and I encourage others to offer that same support to developing technicians.