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Study Finds Mistakes by Pharmacy Technicians

Assistants' Role in the Spotlight
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WebMD Health News

Feb. 23, 2000 (Washington) Pharmacy technicians are dispensing more and more prescription medications, and one survey finds some are averaging more than 6 mistakes a week, some of which could be life-threatening if undetected. This relatively new occupation is in the spotlight as pharmacists are in increasingly short supply and, in an era of strict managed care requirements, are forced to depend more on assistants paid $6 to $12 an hour.

By contrast, a pharmacist can make from $30 to $60 an hour.

"There's a lot of nontrained people out there, and I suspect that the public would be terrified if they really knew," Douglas Scribner, a pharmacy technician who is president of the American Association of Pharmacy Technicians, tells WebMD. He says his group is trying to upgrade the occupation by imposing certification and education requirements.

In a report commissioned for the Virginia Assembly in 1998, the state Board of Pharmacy noted that pharmacists found their technicians, on average, made 6.5 errors a week. The finding was based on a survey of the state's 1,590 licensed pharmacies.

The consequences of a dispensing mistake can be catastrophic. When then 5-year-old Brittany Buckley was given Compazine for nausea in 1997 at a Port Richey, Fla., Walgreens store, a pharmacy technician told the child's mother the medication was all right for her daughter to take, according to a lawsuit filed over the incident. But the dose was for an adult, and it caused a reaction that left Brittany with a serious learning disability, the lawsuit says.

Though Walgreens won't comment on the case, company spokesman Michael Polzin says the 2,941-store chain is an industry leader in training technicians and gives them a $1,000 raise if they pass a certification test. "Any time there's an error ... we will investigate the incident, try to determine exactly what happened, how it happened, and whether we can do anything differently to prevent it from happening in the future," Polzin tells WebMD.

The episode points out what pharmacy technicians can and cannot do under state regulations. For instance, they can accept a prescription from a customer, handle administrative tasks, put claims in the computer system, select drugs off the shelf, and count pills into a bottle. They cannot counsel patients or determine whether a prescription might cause an interaction with a drug a person is already taking.

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