Exploring this Job

To explore this job, talk to a local pharmacist about his or her work. Many associations offer ways to pose questions to professionals on their website. Volunteer at a hospital or clinic in your area to get hands-on experience working in a medical environment. You can also try to get a paid part-time or summer job at a pharmacy or hospital.

The Job

Pharmacists need a thorough knowledge of drug products. Most importantly, they need to understand how drugs work for people who are sick, how the drugs interact with a person's body as well as illness, and how different drugs may interact with each other. In addition to dispensing drugs according to orders from physicians, dentists, and other health care practitioners, pharmacists advise these professionals on the appropriate selection and use of medications. They monitor how long patients have been taking a medication and provide information to patients and doctors when a generic brand of a drug is available. In addition to advising doctors and other health professionals, pharmacists talk with patients or customers about medications, explaining what the medications are supposed to do and how to use them properly. Pharmacists working in retail locations, such as a neighborhood drugstore, may also find that customers come to them with questions about symptoms. They may recommend nonprescription products such as headache remedies, vitamins, and cough syrups. All pharmacists keep records of drugs and medications dispensed to each person in order to identify duplicate drugs or combinations of drugs that can cause adverse reactions or side effects. (At many large pharmacy chains, this information is provided to the pharmacist by software programs.)

In conjunction with these duties, pharmacists are required to maintain their licenses through continuing education, though education requirements vary by location. Some states may also require continuing education in particular disease topics and treatment.

Pharmacists' duties vary somewhat depending on where they are employed. About 43 percent of pharmacists work for community retail pharmacies, such as a local drugstore pharmacy, a chain drugstore pharmacy, or a grocery store pharmacy. These pharmacists fill prescription orders, contact doctors and other health care professionals by phone when clarification about a prescription is needed, and have frequent interaction with the public. In addition to pharmaceutical duties, they sell merchandise unrelated to health, hire and supervise other workers, and oversee the general operation of the pharmacy.

About 26 percent of pharmacists work at hospitals or clinics. They prepare sterile solutions or special mixtures, dispense medications on-site, and complete administrative duties. They work closely with the medical staff, suggesting what medications to use, explaining their effects, and sometimes demonstrating how to give medications. They also keep precise records of what type and amount of medications each patient is on, keep track of supplies in the pharmacy, and buy new supplies as necessary. They may also interact with patients, meeting with them before their discharge to discuss what medications they will use at home. At a large hospital or clinic employing a number of pharmacists, a supervising pharmacist may also be responsible for arranging schedules and overseeing the work of others.

Some pharmacists are employed by large pharmaceutical manufacturers. They may work in one of several capacities. Some engage in research to help develop new drugs or to improve or find new uses for old ones. Others supervise the preparation of ingredients that go into the tablets, capsules, ointments, solutions, or other dosage forms produced by the manufacturer. Others test or standardize the raw or refined chemicals that eventually will go into the finished drug. Some may assist with advertising the company's products, to make sure that nothing untruthful or misleading is said about a product in professional literature. Some pharmacists may prepare literature on new products for pharmaceutical or technical journals. Others write material for package inserts.

Pharmacists employed by government agencies may work in a number of different kinds of positions. They may be inspectors who monitor drug manufacturing firms, hospitals, wholesalers, or community pharmacies. They may work in research with agencies such as the FDA, testing the effectiveness of new drugs, or they may work with agencies involved with narcotics and other controlled substances.

Other opportunities for pharmacists include teaching at schools of pharmacy, working in the armed forces, and working for Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) or insurance companies. Some pharmacists write or edit reports for journals, draft technical papers, and staff professional associations. An increasing number of pharmacists—senior care pharmacists—are employed by nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to provide and monitor drug therapy for the elderly. Some pharmacists complete additional education to become patent attorneys or experts in pharmaceutical law.

All pharmacists must be diligent in maintaining clean and ordered work areas. They must be exceedingly precise in their calculations and possess a high degree of concentration in order to reduce the risk of error as they compound and assemble prescriptions. Additionally, pharmacists must be proficient with a variety of technical devices and computer systems. However, more and more drug products are shipped in finished form by the pharmaceutical manufacturer. The actual compounding of prescription medications, therefore, is taking a smaller amount of time.