Hospitals are starting to take a do-it-yourself approach by developing their own accredited pharmacy technician training programs with the goal of hiring these skilled workers and advancing pharmacy practice.
John Armitstead, system director of pharmacy services at Lee Health in Fort Myers and Cape Coral, Florida, said the multihospital system recently hired all 7 graduates of the organization’s inaugural pharmacy technician class.
“We’ve already got another class started, and that’s got 6 students in it,” Armitstead said.
Lee Health’s technician training program is one of 15 in the state with full or candidate accreditation status from ASHP and the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education (ACPE). It’s the only such pharmacy technician training program in Florida that’s operated by a health system.
Nationally, just 5 of the 261 ASHP–ACPE-accredited or candidate-status technician training programs are classified as operated by a health system or hospital, said Lisa Lifshin, director of pharmacy technician accreditation and residency services in ASHP’s Accreditation Services Division.
Armitstead said his program’s students are recruited from Lee Health’s day-shift workforce, and they generally attend classes at the hospital 4 or 5 evenings per week.
“They tend to be established employees that are now looking to advance their career,” he said.
But he cautioned that people who don’t grasp rudimentary math skills may not be good candidates for the technician training program.
“We can teach you other things relative to the pharmacy technician role,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to . . . teach you how to add, multiply, and understand percentages and fractions.”
Armitstead said one reason Lee Health started its own training program is that southwest Florida doesn’t produce enough trained pharmacy technicians to meet the health system’s needs.
Graduates of Lee Health’s program start their new positions with firsthand experience in how pharmacy is practiced at the health system.
Armitstead said facility costs for the program are low, because meeting rooms where classes are held are readily available during the evening. And when the graduates are hired, Lee Health avoids the expenses associated with recruiting and training technicians from outside of the health system.
That cost avoidance more than offsets the expense of hiring a coordinator with a degree in education to run the training program, Armitstead said.
Lee Health’s technician training program provides 320 contact hours of didactic instruction, 200 hours of experiential learning, and 80 hours of laboratory instruction, with most content delivered live.
Cleveland Clinic’s ASHP–ACPE-accredited pharmacy technician training program — 1 of 7 in Ohio and the only one operated by a health system — provided mostly live content when it enrolled its first class in 2011 but is converting its didactic content to an online format.
“We were just having trouble recruiting people who were willing to pay tuition and then go through a training program for so many months. A lot of them were already working, so it was difficult for them to leave a job and come do this,” said Tara Hannum, program director for Cleveland Clinic’s School of Pharmacy Technology. “So we had to adjust our scheduling and the way we were doing the program in order to get the best students that we could get.”
She said recording the lectures for the online content was challenging. Another challenge is incorporating documentation for the technician training program into Cleveland Clinic’s learning management system.
That system was initially designed to document activities like cardiopulmonary resuscitation training for the staff — not managing transcripts and recording grades for the technician training program, Hannum said.
But she said the training program itself is an important resource for developing and hiring pharmacy technicians who are familiar with Cleveland Clinic’s pharmacy operations and trained to handle a variety of tasks when they start work.
The program enrolls 2 classes of up to 12 students each annually, with sessions beginning in January and June. Hannum said students are recruited from among the Cleveland Clinic staff and the local community and vary in age and experience.
For any class to succeed, Hannum said, the pharmacy staff members who teach the students must be “able to work with learners on a spectrum.”
“You really need to get a team of people together who not only have the pharmacy aspect behind them but also understand education,” she explained. “You’ve got to be able to counsel; you’ve got to be able to sit there and work with them to help them through the struggles.”
Hannum said the students are deployed to experiential sites throughout northeastern Ohio, and the technicians who serve as preceptors at these locations are a vital part of the training program.
“They’re the people who make the schedules, get everybody in their places, [and] get everything oriented. And then they help [students] through their day and help them . . . feel confident,” Hannum said.
Preceptor development is enthusiastically underway at the soon-to-be-launched technician training program operated by Rochester, Minnesota–headquartered Mayo Clinic, said Matthew A. Rewald, pharmacy technician education coordinator.
“It’s really exciting to see everyone so ready and willing to provide their skills, talents, and abilities — sometimes outside of their day-to-day workflow — to make this a successful program,” Rewald said.
This is Rewald’s second time developing a technician training program with the goal of ASHP–ACPE accreditation, and his past experience helps him keep the program on target for a planned launch in August.
Garrett E. Schramm, director of pharmacy education and academic affairs, said Mayo Clinic had previously developed didactic lectures and on-the-job training programs for pharmacy technicians that followed the requirements of the Minnesota board of pharmacy.
An institutional goal of that program was to ensure that newly hired technicians were able to pass the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB) exam — but the goal wasn’t always met.
“We were losing some technicians who were unable to pass that exam,” Schramm said. “At Mayo Clinic, the expectation is that technicians must meet PTCB certification within 1 year of employment.”
Rewald said the biggest challenge was deciding whether to create the program in-house or to contract with a vendor to develop a program that fully met the needs the multistate health system.
Ultimately, he said, the need for content specific to Mayo Clinic’s patient-care practices and facilities drove the decision to develop the program in-house.
The technician training program will be offered through the Mayo Clinic School of Health Sciences, an educational institution accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Six of the 7 ASHP–ACPE-accredited or candidate technician training programs in Minnesota are affiliated with technical or vocational schools.
“The pharmacy technician training program is lucky, because we have the resources of a true academic medical center,” Schramm said. “The . . . program was a slam dunk to be put into the school.”
Schramm said students may be eligible for financial aid, which isn’t always the case for health system–operated technician training programs that lack a similar academic affiliation.
Armitstead said Lee Health offers financial aid of a sort — the program’s tuition is waived for technician graduates who stay on the job for at least a year.
Hannum, at Cleveland Clinic, said the cost of tuition is an obstacle for potential students, although those with very low incomes may be eligible for financial aid through a state program.
But she said it’s important for programs like hers to persevere and to make sure pharmacy technicians aren’t left behind as pharmacy practice advances.
“We really need to start putting technicians as a priority, and making sure that they’re getting all their education, and getting their continuing-education credits, and making sure that they’re ready to move into those new positions that are developing,” she said.
[This news story appears in the April 15, 2018, issue of AJHP.]