Pharmacy technician or pharmacy assistant? Finding the right fit in the pharmacy

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Last updated March 23, 2021

These days, the pharmacy is considered a health care hub in most communities. It’s the place people go to fill their prescriptions, find over-the-counter medications for common ailments, get their flu shots and find advice they can trust in a pinch.

According to the Canadian Pharmacists Association, pharmacists consistently rank among the most trusted health care professionals in Canada. Patients say they see their pharmacist more than they do any other care professional. But most pharmacists — whether in the community or hospital setting — will admit that they’re only as good as their pharmacy teams, of which pharmacy technicians and assistants play a key part.

If you’re considering a career in health care, the pharmacy could be a great fit. As a pharmacy assistant or technician, you have the opportunity to have a positive impact while providing essential services to keep Canadians managing their meds (and health) optimally. And unlike the pharmacist, you don’t need to finish a lengthy pharmacy degree first.

Here’s a look at the roles of pharmacy assistants and pharmacy technicians, and the training you’ll need to pursue a career in either function.

Specialty Education Average Salary
Pharmacy assistant While post-secondary education is not required, employers favour applicants who have completed a diploma program in the field.$47,418
Pharmacy technicianPharmacy Technicians must graduate from an accredited program, complete a practical evaluation, and pass a qualifying exam with the Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada (PEBC), as well as the Jurisprudence Exam. $60,000

What does a pharmacy assistant do?

True to the job title, pharmacy assistants assist the pharmacy staff in a host of activities that can range from customer service tasks to clerical and technical roles. Working under the supervision of a pharmacy technician or pharmacist, assistants gather and enter patient prescription information into computer systems  and assess prescriptions to ensure they’re complete. They’re also responsible for packaging prescriptions, compounding non-sterile products, placing and receiving stock orders to maintain inventory and processing insurance claims.

As a pharmacy assistant in a community pharmacy, you’re often the first point of contact for patients and the one they interact with most. You answer their questions or relay them to the pharmacist. Booking patient consults with the pharmacist and helping educate patients on managing certain health care conditions can also be part of the duties assigned to pharmacy assistants.

In a hospital setting, the assistant may be responsible for preparing sterile products, such as IV admixtures, or managing the use of automated compounding and dispensing devices, too.

There are plenty of accredited pharmacy assistant programs across Canada to help you begin your career as a pharmacy assistant.

What does a pharmacy technician do?

Similar to a pharmacy assistant, a pharmacy technician plays a supportive role in the pharmacy in terms of customer care, prescription accuracy and inventory management. But a pharmacy tech has more responsibility when it comes to preparing medications and doing the final check before meds are dispensed to the patient. Depending on scope of practice regulations from province to province, pharmacy technicians can also transfer prescriptions, accept verbal prescriptions and provide injections to patients. They can show patients how to operate medical devices and provide medication information that doesn’t require using therapeutic knowledge (they’re not permitted to give medical advice to patients).

In the hospital, pharmacy techs can be involved in compiling patient medication histories, preparing sterile and non-sterile compounds and assisting in the management of clinical trials.

Along with community pharmacies and hospitals, pharmacy techs can work in long-term care facilities and with pharmaceutical manufacturers in product preparation. Some go on to pursue further certifications in areas such as compounded sterile preparation and hazardous drug management or to become better equipped in taking patient medication histories.

If you’re interested in exploring training options, here is an interactive list of top pharmacy technician courses across the country.

What pharmacy training do I need?

While you aren’t required to have any post-secondary education to become a pharmacy assistant, potential employers tend to favour applicants with some pharmacy training and/or related diploma. There are many pharmacy assistant diploma programs across the country, most of which include some sort of work practicum to gain experience in the field. A good pharmacy assistant program will help students develop the essential communication skills needed to be on the front-line in the pharmacy. Another option is to find a part-time job or internship in a retail or hospital environment to gain experience.

Given the opportunity for expanded practice scope, some pharmacy assistants go on to pursue careers as pharmacy technicians.

Pharmacy technicians first became regulated health care professionals in Ontario in 2010, and since then most of the country has followed suit. Starting this year, Quebec is offering a pharmacy technician diploma in 10 CEGEP colleges, but the provincial government is still determining how to certify current pharmacy assistants who wish to become technicians. In the Territories, pharmacy technicians are not yet regulated.

As pharmacies continue to be an essential health care destination, job opportunities on the pharmacy team are expected to keep growing. Both pharmacy assistants and pharmacy technicians play a key part in the successful function of the pharmacy — and in helping all the patients who depend on pharmacy services.

CourseCompare has developed interactive digital catalogues of top-rated pharmacy technician and pharmacy assistant programs across Canada. Click the links to find accredited learning opportunities near you. 

Rosalind Stefanac Content

Rosalind Stefanac is a writer and editor who is passionate about sharing Canadian healthcare stories and successes. A former editor of Pharmacy Practice + Business, an award-winning national journal for pharmacists, she now writes for a variety of healthcare magazines and websites geared to consumers and healthcare providers. She has also written for business publications such as Financial Post Magazine and the Report on Business.

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