We get this question a lot! People who are considering training in this field always want to know how a pharmacy assistant is different from a pharmacy technician—and which career path they should choose.
In this post, we'll break down the key differences between these two roles. We'll also give an overview of what to expect in pharmacy assistant training, in case you decide to go that route.
Here's what you need to know.
What is a pharmacy assistant?
A pharmacy assistant helps the pharmacist with drug preparation, answers customers' questions, does inventory, updates patient files, and processes billing and insurance claims.
This job is a mix of clerical work, customer service, and technical tasks. For example, on any given day, you'll be calculating dosages and compounding drugs, answering phones, and explaining pharmacy products to customers.
In many ways, pharmacy assistants are the "face" of the pharmacy, and the person clients interact with most often.
What is a pharmacy technician?
A pharmacy technician is similar to a pharmacy assistant. They can do all the support tasks an assistant does, but have a few added responsibilities and powers.
For example, unlike assistants, pharmacy technicians have "signing authority" on new and refill prescriptions.
They are accountable and responsible for the technical aspects of the prescription. What does that mean? It means they are permitted to independently receive the prescription, prepare the drug, and do a final check to ensure everything is correct.
Before handing the medication over to the patient, the pharmacist steps in to ensure the product is appropriate for the patient and provide counselling on how to use it.
Pharmacy technicians are also allowed to accept verbal prescriptions (with the exception of narcotics, controlled drugs, benzodiazepines and targeted substances) and provide prescription transfers.
So, basically, a pharmacy technician has a greater scope of practice than a pharmacy assistant.
Here's the big difference...
In Ontario, pharmacy technicians are regulated by the Ontario College of Pharmacists. You can't legally work as a technician until you've completed an accredited training program, registered with the College, and successfully passed two of their exams.
The whole process looks like this:
- pre-register with the Ontario College of Pharmacists and pay a fee
- graduate from an approved pharmacy technician program
- take the Jurisprudence Exam (all pharmacists and pharmacy techs must take this exam)
- take the Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada qualifying exam for pharmacy technicians
Pharmacy Technicians must remain members of the College and abide by its rules. You will be held accountable to strict standards of practice, code of ethics, policies, and guidelines.
Pharmacy assistants, on the other hand, are not regulated in Ontario. There is no organization that oversees training and professional practice. They simply complete a pharmacy assistant program at a reputable college, and start work in the field.
Which pharmacy career should you choose?
This is the big question. And of course, it comes down to your preference—but there are a few things to consider. We asked Bob Orser for his opinion. Bob is a pharmacy assistant instructor, and has owned and managed pharmacies in Ottawa for over 40 years.
"Generally speaking, the majority of Pharmacists are not yet comfortable with the idea of the Pharmacy Technician checking a prescription. Many pharmacy managers choose to hire Pharmacy Assistants instead of Technicians. They know Assistants have an excellent education, and have been well trained in all aspects of pharmacy practice. This is the real advantage to earning a Pharmacy Assistant Diploma. You'll have more job opportunities."
So, there seems to be some controversy over pharmacy technicians being able to check and transfer prescriptions. And because not all pharmacy owners are ready to hand this power over to technicians, they're more likely to hire a pharmacy assistant.
That being said, some students want the "special status" pharmacy technicians enjoy in Ontario. The profession is regulated, you need a license to practice, and you have more responsibility at work.
Bob says students should remember that these two jobs really aren't so different though, when it comes to daily tasks.
"The main difference is that Pharmacy Assistants are not licensed or regulated by the College of Pharmacy. Pharmacy Assistants in Ontario are able to read and process a prescription. They are allowed to select the drug and prepare it, and they can adjudicate an insurance claim.
On the other hand, Pharmacy Technician is a protected title in Ontario. They can do all the same tasks as Assistants—but they also have signing authority for refills, and can transfer a prescription from one pharmacy to another."
On the plus side, there's strong demand for pharmacy assistants in Ontario. The latest report from the Government of Canada Job Bank gives this occupation 3 stars for job opportunities—the highest possible rating.
Pharmacy assistant training & careers
If you decide to go with pharmacy assistant, there are a few key things to know about training and career options.
First of all, pharmacy assistant programs usually take around a year to complete—but some are shorter. At Herzing, for example, we offer a 10-month pharmacy assistant diploma that students can finish quickly, studying full-time.
Your training will cover all the theory and hands-on skills needed to get hired at a retail or hospital pharmacy. You'll study pharmacy software, medication preparation and compounding, how to process a prescription, basic pharmacy math, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, how to avoid medication errors, and much more.
Get more details here: 4 Key Skills You'll Learn in Pharmacy Assistant Training & Use Every Day At Work
You'll also do an internship at a local pharmacy, so you can put those new skills into practice, and get some real work experience before graduating.
Where can you get hired? Bob says pharmacy assistants have a range of options.
"Pharmacy Assistants typically find work in retail pharmacies. But there are other career options out there. Assistants can work in specialized compounding pharmacies, and in long-term care homes. Some may work in hospitals in Quebec, and in health regions of Ontario that do not require a Technician license to work in their pharmacies."
Want to learn more about becoming a pharmacy assistant?
Your next step is to talk with an admissions advisor at a pharmacy assistant college. They will walk you through admission requirements, class schedules, costs, financial aid, and how to apply.
They'll also make sure you're a good fit for this program and career. You'll talk about skills needed to succeed in training, your professional goals, and whether pharmacy assistant training is your best match.
At Herzing, we have a couple of easy ways to get in touch, and learn more about becoming a pharmacy assistant. Use the links below to get started. We're here to help!