Technology and pharmacy: my role as a pharmacist in informatics

Pharmacy informatics involves working with new technology, automation and information systems.

Jerry Fahrni, consultant in pharmacy informatics

California-based pharmacist Jerry Fahrni is a consultant in pharmacy informatics. He explains how his hobby became his job.

What appealed to you about pharmacy as a career?

My road to becoming a pharmacist was convoluted. The college I went to did not offer much variety, so I started my college career in the department of engineering with hopes of eventually going to medical school because I thought I wanted to be a physician.

During my first year of college, I realised that I did not enjoy any of the biological sciences but I loved chemistry, which is not an ideal combination for someone looking for a career as a physician. I knew I wanted to do something in healthcare so I started looking at careers that were heavily dependent on chemistry and that is how I ended up choosing pharmacy.

What exactly is informatics and how does it link with pharmacy?

Traditional informatics involves the science of information and computer information systems but the role of an informatics pharmacist is still widely debated inside the profession. The term has become a catchall for anything dealing with any type of automation, technology or information system.

The problem is that people use many different terms and job descriptions to describe pharmacists who work in this role. Often they are looking for the same thing but they do not know how to describe it.

Pharmacists working in informatics do jobs ranging from strategic planning of new automation systems to optimising existing technology. A pharmacist working in informatics might work with robotics, computerised provider order entry (CPOE) systems, pharmacy information systems, bar-code medication administration (BCMA) technology, smartpumps or automated dispensing cabinets. It is a diverse field.

How did you get involved in informatics?

I stumbled into this field, although I have always had a deep interest in technology. When I graduated from pharmacy school at the University of California I spent a lot of my free time tinkering with gadgets at home and building computers.

My hobby eventually spilled over into my job as a pharmacist. I found myself gravitating towards all the different technologies when I was at work. Any time the hospital needed a pharmacist to help with building a database or planning for a new technology, I volunteered. Soon, I became the “go-to pharmacist” for these types of projects.

As the use of automation and technology in pharmacy practice began to grow, I found myself doing more and more projects. Eventually it morphed into a full-time role as an IT pharmacist. It was a role that few people had heard of so it was considered cutting edge at the time.

What does your current role involve?

My job as an independent consultant is varied and has evolved over time. When I first started in this role, I envisioned myself helping hospitals make smart decisions about what technologies to use in their day-to-day operations. I believed there would be a lot of hospital pharmacies looking for that type of guidance but it never materialised.

However, pharmacy technology companies were interested in leveraging my knowledge and experience to help them build better products. Often, I evaluate their new and existing products by looking at the products’ functionality and usability to see where improvements might be made.

Sometimes companies will hire me to do market research, develop training materials for their employees or their customers, or, occasionally, speak about the state of pharmacy automation and technology to the entire company.

What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far and why?

I was involved in designing a new pharmacy from the ground up using a lot of automation and technology. It took more than a year to get everything in place but it was worth it because I learnt a lot. Being involved with something from beginning to end is exciting.

Additionally, although I do not remember what my first job as an independent consultant was, the idea that I was working for myself was more exciting than I ever thought possible. Being a consultant has given me the opportunity to do a lot of interesting things.

What do you find most challenging about your current role?

The irregular intervals and variety of work can be difficult. One month I may have several projects all at once while other months may be quiet with nothing to do.

I am often forced to switch my mindset between completely different types of projects. One week I may be evaluating the usability of a product for one vendor and the next I may be travelling for market research for another. Although the variety keeps me from becoming bored, it can be challenging.

Would you encourage other pharmacists to explore informatics as a career?

I would encourage other pharmacists to explore informatics as a career if they have an interest in technology and how it applies to pharmacy. My advice comes with a couple of caveats, however.

First, interest in pharmacy informatics appears to have slowed in the past few years — it is difficult to say whether this is because people are losing interest or because the initial hype has passed and the specialty has matured.

Also, because there is no standard definition for what pharmacy informatics means, it is important that you know what you are getting into. On one hand, there are some great opportunities out there if you look carefully. On the other, some opportunities in this field are limited in scope and can offer little to challenge your mind.

What do you hope to achieve with your career in the future?

It is difficult for me to say. I have a short attention span, which is a blessing and a curse. It makes my life interesting but, at the same time, it makes it difficult for me to project where I will be in a few years’ time.

The only thing I know for certain is that I want to make a lasting impact on the profession and pharmacy practice. I think that is entirely possible given that I have had the opportunity to influence products and workflow designs found in some areas of pharmacy, such as having helped design the user interface for some technology in intravenous rooms.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, September 2016, Vol 297, No 7893;297(7893):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2016.20201521

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