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Pharmacy technician shortage causes strain in hospital and retail pharmacies

February 10, 2023
The exterior of Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, MI on Sept. 23, 2020.
The exterior of Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, MI on Sept. 23, 2020.

A national staffing shortage of pharmacy technicians has left retail and clinical pharmacies to struggle keeping up with demand.

Sparrow Hospital Pharmacy Director Todd Belding said the shortage began before the COVID-19 pandemic but was exacerbated by the fear of being exposed to the virus in a healthcare setting.

“People wanted to stay away from places that were known to have a lot of interactions with COVID-19, and so retail pharmacies and hospital pharmacies were struggling for applicants during that time,” Belding said.

Similar levels of demand being maintained by a smaller staff leads to burnout faster in pharmacies, Belding said, and increases the possibility for error.

“(Staff) tend to try to hurry through the process and that always leads to a larger chance of having an error,” Belding said. “It slows down the process which does lead to frustration.”

As a national staff shortage took hold of restaurants and retailers, pharmacy technicians watched as companies raised starting wages from the minimum legal amount to upwards of $15 per hour – meanwhile, pharmacy technicians were getting paid a similar wage and having to undergo a higher amount of pressure in their workplace, Michigan Pharmacists’ Association CEO Mark Glasper said.

“It’s a very highly pressurized environment that they work in (with) a lot of stress involved, and the pay isn’t there to support that,” Glasper said.

Diminished interest in becoming a pharmacy technician has led to enrollment in accredited training programs being lower, which in turn causes a lower quality of education for those that do attend the programs, according to Keith Binion, director of the pharmacy technician program at Henry Ford College.

The decrease in demand for training programs leads to the schools struggling to stay open and provide trainings. Less availability in accredited programs means the pharmacy technicians that are starting out in the field will receive on-the-job training from their employers, Binion said.

While a shift toward employer-based training streamlines the process of becoming a pharmacy technician, Binion said it leads new hires to not be exposed to the career potential open for technicians.

“A lot of people don’t really know what the pharmacy technician does," Binion said. "The image that has been painted for so long is ‘just a technician,' ‘just a clerk.'"

With the proper training, pharmacy technicians can perform compounding, work as the pharmacy buyer, work with insurance companies, and specialize in chemotherapy, narcotics, hazardous waste management and medication therapy management, Binion said.

“It’s a shame because being a pharmacy technician can not only be a good career, but also it can be a stepping stone to becoming a pharmacist,” Glasper said. “It’s definitely an opportunity for them if they stay in the field. It’s a career opportunity … but pay has to keep up as well.”

When the pay is not justifying the stress nor presenting the opportunity for serious career advancement, the employees seek other opportunities, according to Glasper. This still leaves pharmacies with the demand to fill prescriptions.

“When you’re a licensed healthcare professional, you do the job and you serve others until it’s done,” Binion said. “It’s not really a ‘clock hour,’ like ‘I’m going to do my eight hours and go home.'"

Glasper said that the staffing issue could be alleviated by raising wages for pharmacy technicians. When that position is vacant, pharmacists at times have to step in and meet the demand of customers by counting and filling prescriptions, taking them away from the work they are qualified to do.

“(It) doesn’t make any sense because if they only want to pay pharmacy technicians $15 or $16 an hour, you’re certainly paying the pharmacist a lot more than that to fill in for them,” Glasper said.

As the pharmacy technician shortage continues, Binion endorses accredited training programs, like the one he runs at Henry Ford College, to show potential pharmacy technicians the career possibilities in the field.

Binion said accredited training programs invest in the education of the students, teaching them about pharmacy law, pharmacology and regular pharmacy interactions. This helps students feel there is a future in being a pharmacy technician.

A McLaren Health Care spokesperson declined to do an interview for this story.

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