How to Become a Pharmacy Technician

As Baby Boomers continue to age and health coverage expands in the wake of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the demand for healthcare services has skyrocketed. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2015) reports that among the fastest growing sectors in the economy, the top five are all related to healthcare. As part of this ballooning market, openings for pharmacy technicians are expected to swell 9 percent between 2014 and 2024, faster than the average growth projected for all occupations during that time period (7 percent).

Another force that has been contributing to the demand for these healthcare professionals is the overall rise of prescription drug use. In a 2014 report, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) illustrated how Americans’ use of prescription drugs has increased substantially during the past four decades. Survey respondents were asked if they had used at least one prescription drug within the previous 30 days. Between 1988 and 1994, 39.1 percent of respondents stated “yes,” and that figure shot up to 47.3 percent between 2009 and 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans using five or more prescription drugs has more than doubled between those time intervals (4 percent and 10.1 percent of Americans, respectively).

Also, in an aggregate report from several data sources, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL 2015) stated that total spending on drug therapy had swelled to over $300 billion in the US with nearly 330 million drugs ordered or provided (CDC 2015). The pharmaceutical industry is booming and consequently, there’s a mounting demand for qualified pharmacy technicians.

So what do pharmacy technicians do? The BLS (2015) states that these professionals perform a variety of functions under licensed pharmacists such as measuring medications; labeling and packaging prescriptions; acting as liaisons between customers and healthcare workers; delivering medicine to patients, nursing stations, or surgical rooms; managing and organizing pharmaceutical inventories; and accepting payment for medications. Many of the duties are learned on-the-job, and these technicians may work in drugstores, grocery stores, nursing homes, hospitals, or other medical settings. Since some pharmacies are open 24 hours per day, some of these professionals work nights and weekends, although with increased seniority, they may have more control over their schedules. The BLS (2015) adds that in 2014, there were 372,500 pharmacy technicians across the country making an average annual salary of $29,810. 

Although regulations for this profession are always evolving, pharmacy technicians generally have at least a high school diploma. According to O*NET (2015)—a partner of the US government’s American Job Center—60 percent of working pharmacy technicians have a high school education as their highest completed degree, and 14 percent held postsecondary certificates. That said, it may be advisable to pursue postsecondary education in this field. The Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB 2015) has stated that beginning in 2020, PTCB will require its certification candidates to complete an accredited pharmacy technician program in order to qualify.

Read on to discover how to become a pharmacy technician, as well as what to know about professional certification and program accreditation.

Steps to Become a Pharmacy Technician

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Although paths in this field may vary, here is one possible path to becoming a certified pharmacy technician:

  • 1. Attain a high school diploma or the equivalent (e.g., GED). Successful pharmacy technicians typically have strong backgrounds in mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physiology. At this stage, some students may choose to volunteer at a hospital or in another healthcare setting to get exposure in the field and strengthen their interpersonal skills.
  • 2. Graduate from an accredited pharmacy technician training program (1 year). As stated above, pharmaceutical technicians seeking certification through the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) will need to have graduated from an ASHP/ACPE-accredited training program starting in 2020. Recently, the ASHP and ACPE jointly formed the Pharmacy Technician Accreditation Commission (PTAC). ASHP developed a model curriculum in this discipline comprising units in client-facing skills as well as professional role awareness, among others. One example of an ASHP-accredited program is the one at the Pima Medical Institute in Nevada which offers specialized instruction in pharmacy math; pharmacy law & ethics; technician duties; pharmacology; principles of customer service; and fundamentals of chemistry. Some programs provide additional units in physiology, healthcare systems, and medical terminology. Other accredited programs include those at the Cleveland Clinic, and the Remington College campuses across Texas. For other programs—including online pharmacy technician training options—check MedicalTechnologySchools’s page on pharmacy technicians.
  • 3. Get certified by national and regional certification bodies (timeline varies). Although not all states require pharmacy technicians to be certified, many employers prefer it. The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) has a list of contact information for each state’s board to verify whether or not pharmacy techs must be certified. As of December 2015, 45 states require these healthcare technicians to be registered or licensed. There are two main national certification bodies for this profession: the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) and the National Healthcareer Association (NHA). There are 23 states which require the PTCB certification. Both types of certifications require the candidate to have a high school diploma and successfully pass an exam. In addition to becoming a certified pharmacy technician (CPhT), some candidates choose to further enhance their credentials with other certifications in areas such as sterile products (IV); chemotherapy; or nuclear pharmacy tech (NPT). Please reference the section below for more information on professional certification.
  • 4. Maintain active certification (every two years). Certifications from PTCB and NHA must be renewed every two years. PTCB requires the completion of 20 continued education (CE) hours, and NHA requires 10 hours.

Pharmacy Technician Certification

As mentioned above, the rules surrounding the certification, registration, or licensure of pharmacy techs vary by state. The Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB)—one of the two main national certification bodies—reports that 45 states currently regulate people in this profession, and 23 states require PTCB certification specifically. Regional rules can be retrieved by contacting the specific Board of Pharmacy, a list of which has been provided by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP).

There are two main bodies which provide national certification: PTCB and the National Healthcareer Association (NHA).

The Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) requires candidates to have at least a high school diploma and pass an exam. In a recent reports, however, PTCB (2015) has indicated that beginning in 2020, candidates for certification will have to have completed a pharmacy tech program accredited by the Pharmacy Technician Accreditation Commission (PTAC). The PTCB’s Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE) is a two-hour, computer-based test comprising 90 questions in nine areas such as pharmacology for technicians; pharmacy laws & regulations; medication safety; and medication order entry & fill process. Pharmacy technicians certified by PTCB must renew every two years following the completion of 20 continued education (CE) hours.

The second certification organization—the National Healthcareer Association (NHA)—offers the ExCPT exam to candidates who either have at least 1,200 hours of supervised pharmacy experience or have completed a pharmacy technician education program. The 100-question exam tests similar areas as the PTCE. Pharmacy technicians certified by NHA must renew every two years following the completion of 10 CE hours.

Finally, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE) reports that CE hours are ” a structured educational activity designed or intended to support the continuing development of pharmacists and/or pharmacy technicians to maintain and enhance their competence.” Organizations which offer CE opportunities include the American Association of Pharmacy Technicians; the American Pharmacists Association; the National Pharmacy Technician Association; and PharmacyTechCE.

Program Accreditation

Before enrolling in pharmacy technician training, students are encouraged to verify the accreditation status of the program. Accreditation can serve as an indicator of program quality as administrators review the curricula, methods, and outcomes of programs.

As stated above, starting in 2020, the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB 2015) will require certification candidates to have successfully completed an education program accredited by the Pharmacy Technician Accreditation Commission (PTAC)—a joint effort between the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) and the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). In December 2015, PTAC updated its standards of program accreditation, expanding the flexibility of programs to meet the hands-on training requirements.

Overall, standards regulating pharmacy technicians have been moving toward increased oversight through professional certification and program accreditation. People interested in this profession are urged to check the latest regulations posited by state and national organizations in this field.