Study Finds Mistakes by Pharmacy Technicians
Assistants' Role in the Spotlight
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
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
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.
Although the estimated 200,000 technicians in the U.S. must operate under a
pharmacist's direct supervision, their training levels vary dramatically. Only
an estimated 55,000 applicants have passed the exam developed by the Pharmacy
Technician Certification Board, a voluntary accreditation program.
According to the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, only Alaska,
Utah, Washington, and Wyoming license pharmacy technicians, while a
certification exam is required in just Louisiana and Wyoming. Nineteen states
simply register the technicians.