The role of the pharmacy technician has expanded and evolved dramatically in the past few years, from being solely supportive to having far greater potential for independent and clinical working. This is perhaps not surprising given the shifting landscape of pharmacy in general.
The GPhC started registering pharmacy technicians in 2011 and now has around 20,000 on its register. Over the past year, NHS England has been piloting schemes to accredit more pharmacy technicians as accuracy checking technicians (ACTs). But has the pace of change had detrimental effects on job satisfaction?
A stressed workforce
A snapshot survey carried out by The Pharmaceutical Journal found that 53% have considered leaving the profession in the past year and 66% have considered leaving their current job. Despite 57% of respondents believing their job prospects to be better than previous generations of pharmacy technicians, the results also painted a picture of a somewhat stressed workforce who, in many cases, do not have the resources to do their job properly.
Lack of staff and lack of funding were among the main barriers cited by the 63% who said resources had a negative impact on their work. It raises the question of whether the profession as a whole has enough support to manage the extra responsibilities on offer.
Beata Mularska, pharmacy technician at MJ Williams Independent Pharmacy in Bedminster, Bristol, started as a trainee dispenser seven years ago. She has been a pharmacy technician for the past three years and qualified as an ACT in 2017. She is also a team leader at the award-winning pharmacy. The support of her team has been really important as they keep pushing her to do the next thing. “They are really supportive and when I was studying they helped me a lot. English is not my first language so it was very hard.”
Mularska was given time each week to study, which was really important, even though it was still hard to juggle work and education. She says the job is varied but very busy as she is responsible for smoking cessation and blood pressure checks. “It is harder now I am an ACT, I can be a bit obsessive about triple checking but you do it because you care about patient safety.”
Among the 236 responses — the majority from hospital pharmacy technicians — two-thirds said they should be paid more for the job they do and 67% say they have more responsibilities than those laid out in their job description.
Stress was also highlighted as an issue in the responses, with almost 11% of respondents saying they have had to take time off work owing to stress and 72% reporting that they have a colleague who has had to take time off work owing to stress within the past 12 months. Worryingly, 18% have been the victim of bullying from another member of staff within the past year.
Source: Courtesy of Helen Pinney
It is the fast pace of change that can explain many of the negative responses to the survey, believes Helen Pinney, a pharmacy technician at a GP surgery in Ealing, London. Her role has expanded to cover care homes and yet the extra responsibilities that pharmacy technicians are taking on are not reflected in pay or job descriptions, she says.
“Our role has expanded laterally and longitudinally and continues to do so,” she says. “It makes sense that the resources don’t quite match. It doesn’t surprise me that most felt they were not paid enough — pay scales have not caught up with what we actually do.” Pinney adds that many technicians are being paid as dispensers despite possessing qualifications allowing them to do much more. In addition, access to resources for ongoing training and education can be difficult, especially in community pharmacy. The problem is heightened by a lack of standardised educational pathways.
You can feel unsupported sometimes and not unified as a profession. There does need to be progression so the new generation of technicians coming in can see a career path in front of them
While Pinney feels supported by her team, it doesn’t stop the job being stressful. Pinney has had to take time off after running herself into the ground doing 70–80-hour weeks covering for staff who had recently left. What she would like to see over the next five years is more standardisation of education and career development pathways. “You can feel unsupported sometimes and not unified as a profession. There does need to be progression so the new generation of technicians coming in can see a career path in front of them.”
Helen Belben, a pharmacy technician at a GP practice in Somerset, has had mixed experiences that have reflected the wide-ranging changes seen in the profession as other healthcare professionals get to grips with what a pharmacy technician does. At her first practice, they did not really know what a pharmacy technician was and although the role ended up evolving over time, she feels her skills were not really used to her full potential. “I kept saying I would like a patient-facing role and they didn’t get that.” The second practice had a better idea. “There was a practice pharmacist and I was working closely with them so I had more support there,” she says.
Belben’s current role is the best of the three and has evolved in a direction she did not expect. “At the moment I am very well supported and I’m now spending time in a management role looking at new models of care. Having a pharmacist on site is a bonus.” She started to feel more ownership of her role and her career after completing a leadership course and going to conferences where she now sees plenty of familiar faces. But even with her years of experience she can understand how the job can get overwhelming, especially as pharmacy technicians start to take on greater responsibility. “I’m not a stressful person, I’m usually very calm and laid back but recently in my current project setting up a prescription hub I have been finding it very stressful because there is just not enough time in the day.”
Although Belben has witnessed dramatic changes in the past few years, there is still no public awareness of what a pharmacy technician does. She says this is one of the biggest areas that needs addressing but it is very difficult to do.
Loyalty to the profession
One of the contrary findings in the survey was that despite half of respondents saying they had considered leaving the profession, the vast majority would recommend becoming a pharmacy technician to others. Eight in ten respondents said they would recommend becoming a pharmacy technician to others and the same proportion would also recommend their main sector of practice to others. It may be that while they love what they do, their day-to-day working conditions and job recognition would benefit from a review.
Pharmacy technician engagement
Shelley Mannion, pharmacy professional development lead at Bradford College, says that there will be many differences in experience between working in different sectors. “If you look at salaries there is a huge variation between primary and secondary care but salaries should be reflective of the role. The primary role of a pharmacy technician can be very different across different sectors but it is about identifying the right arrangements depending on the role they’re in.”
Some of my students have to do quality improvement projects looking at expanding their role, improving service delivery and influencing patient outcomes — and I’ve seen this applied across all sectors
Mannion runs the level 4 clinical diploma for pharmacy technicians at Bradford College where they have more students from primary and secondary care than community pharmacy. This probably reflects access to funding, she says. “It is about ensuring resources for continuing professional development are available. That is going to be really important going forward.” She adds there is increasing scope for pharmacy technicians to do more clinical roles and, in terms of more responsibility, that is looking at the transferable skills that pharmacy technicians have.
Keeping up with change
Mannion was recently tasked with rewriting the level 4 diploma and it was overhauled with the aim of designing a generic programme to upskill pharmacy technicians regardless of what role they are in. “There have been very rapid changes. We now have pharmacists in national roles educating people on the role of pharmacy technicians and how to utilise their skills. We need to be thinking about how we are going to integrate them into pharmacy services, about how to bring the pharmacy technician into the scope of the practice.”
She adds: “Some of my students have to do quality improvement projects looking at expanding their role, improving service delivery and influencing patient outcomes — and I’ve seen this applied across all sectors.”
Engaging the profession
Mannion says that while the Association of Pharmacy Technicians UK (APTUK) — an organisation she works closely with — are doing an excellent job at representing the needs of pharmacy technicians, there is scope to engage more members of the profession and raise awareness of the resources available to them through APTUK. “When it comes to the resources to do our own job properly it is about us knowing what is out there.”
The next steps, says Mannion, will be about introducing advanced practice frameworks and post registration training and education pathways. But when it comes to feeling supported in your job, the most important thing is to network, she says. “I’m on social media groups, telegram groups, etc, and I would really advocate pharmacy technicians tapping into that. We provide peer support, share job opportunities, new guidelines and learning, and education. I think it is important we look at how we develop these networks.”
Mannion explains that pharmacy technicians can be quite isolated in their roles, and therefore they need to know what resources are available to them to receive the necessary support.
- The survey ran from 3 September to 15 October 2018 and was sent to 1,999 pharmacy technicians, of whom 12% responded. Respondents were entered into a prize draw for a coffee machine.