How to become a pharmacist is a very common question. In 1990, the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) mandated that the doctorate of pharmacy degree (Pharm.D.) would be the new professional degree instead of a pharmacy bachelor’s degree. The decree changed the pharmacy curriculum in all 124 schools and ultimately, the way pharmacists practiced pharmacy.
Doctorate of pharmacy degrees are only offered by pharmacy schools which are graduate schools. The doctor of pharmacy degree is a professional doctorate degree similar to a medical doctor (MD) degree. To become pharmacists undergraduate students must fulfill a few requirements prior to applying to pharmacy school. First, most schools require a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of a 2.5 grade-point average (GPA). However, requirements vary from school to school. Some schools have a higher GPA requirement and others do not require a bachelor’s degree. Refer to AACP for more information regarding entrance requirements. Second, 70% of schools require the PCAT (Pharmacy College Admission Test). The PCAT helps pharmacy schools identify qualified students. If the student is submitting coursework from a foreign country, he or she must take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) to ensure command of the English language. And finally, the student needs to submit an application to each desired pharmacy school accompanied by an application fee and one to four letters of recommendation. If the student appears qualified, the school will contact them for an interview.
According to American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP), the ratio of applicants to enrolled students was 7:1 in 2011. Class sizes are small, ranging from 45 to 220 students. Hence, being accepted is a difficult task. However, the rewards of being a pharmacist far outweigh the effort.
Once accepted, the student will undergo three to four years of schooling which includes one year of clinical experience. The experience contributes merely a portion of required clinical hours. Typically, students work as paid interns to fulfill the rest of the 1,500 hours of clinical hours before sitting for the pharmacy board exam and/or NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination). Students with a passing score will be granted a pharmacist license to practice in the designated state(s).
For those currently practicing pharmacy with a bachelor’s degree, there are opportunities to become doctors of pharmacy by completing a non-traditional Pharm.D. program. Schools have modified programs, allowing a shorter completion time, providing online courses and credit for clinical hours if presently employed.
The doctor of pharmacy degree offers many new advantages to the modern-day pharmacist. In addition to having a respectable title of doctor, pharmacists can practice beyond the pharmacy counter. As clinicians, pharmacists can work as retail pharmacists, taking blood pressure readings and counseling on medications. They can vaccinate patients. They can collaborate with physicians on finding cost-effective medications for patients. In hospitals, they can interpret laboratory values and collaborate with the multi-disciplinary teams on patient care. They can attend Code Blue activities and participate in CPR or recommend lifesaving medications. They can read and research medical journals for drug information. They can assess patients’ lung function by evaluating pulmonary function tests. They can review culture and sensitivity reports and streamline antibiotic therapy to minimize side effects and drug resistance. In clinics, pharmacists can offer diabetic teaching and manage anticoagulation.
Today pharmacists have vast opportunities to gain further training, credentials and certification. For example, by attaining a diabetic certification or completing a specialized residency, pharmacists can advance in their career, secure a position or create a new one. There are more than 22 different pharmacy practice settings (see Pharmacy Careers and Pharmacist Practice Settings).
Post-doctorate training includes pharmacy residencies, specialized pharmacy residencies and fellowships. An average salary for a pharmacy resident is $37,872. For one year, residents work as pharmacists under the supervision of their preceptor (s). They are exposed to different departments such as cardiology, infectious diseases and oncology while learning to practice general pharmacy. In addition, accredited programs require residents to design a study and present their results at the end of the year.
If the pharmacist wishes to specialize after residency, he or she must pursue a specialized residency for another year. Specialized residencies are recommended for those who wish to work in pediatrics, infectious diseases, drug information, oncology, cardiology and nuclear medicine.Unlike residencies, fellowships train pharmacists to be in academic research or industry settings.
Regardless of the pharmacy practice area, becoming a pharmacist in the twenty-first century has its advantages and disadvantages. Pharmacists are paid well. In 2011, the median salary was $113,390. The manual task of dispensing may be replaced with robotics but the role of pharmacists as caregivers and medication experts can never be replaced with technology. Pharmacists are required to staff retail chain pharmacies, hospitals, state prisons, poison control centers, ambulatory care clinics and drug information centers. In addition to financial wealth and job security, there is immense job satisfaction in teaching patients, recommending alternative therapies to the medical team and ensuring that dispensed medications are effective, safe, and properly labeled for the patient.
Like any other healthcare profession, stress and mental fatigue can occur in the pharmacy profession. Stress and fatigue can be managed with meditation, exercise and hobbies. Pharmacy work hours vary depending on practice setting. Hospitals and poison control centers do not close at night or for holidays. Recent pharmacy graduates can expect to rotate through various shifts such as swing or graveyard shifts. Director of pharmacy or other administrative level pharmacists have the benefit of working during regular office hours.
With the current condition of the US healthcare system, pharmacists will always be in need and their roles will be more clinical and comprehensive. The days when pharmacists used to only “count, lick and stick” are no longer. The days of pharmacy doctors are here.
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About the Author
Dr. Karine Wong has a 10 year history of working in hospital management and 2 years as a hospital pharmacist and outpatient pharmacist. She recently published a children's book called Don't Sit On Her.