Heidi Polek, RPh, M.B.A.
The Secret Lives of Pharmacists: 5 Big Reveals Hiding in Plain Sight
Pharmacists are not who you think they are. Tell someone you’re a pharmacist, and they will likely picture you behind a busy counter filling prescriptions. They may not even ask questions about your role because people know what pharmacists do. Or at least, they think they do.
When I say, “I’m a pharmacist,” to someone I’ve just met, I hope it will spark some curiosity. I want it to be a conversation starter that begins with them imagining that maybe I’m a clinical pharmacist…or a research pharmacist…or a veterinary pharmacist…or any of the more than 100 career paths a pharmacist can take.
Although it’s not well known to those outside the profession, pharmacists have many career options beyond filling prescriptions. We graduated from rigorous pharmacy programs and completed both federal and state licensure examinations, just like lawyers who sit for the bar exam. We became pharmacists to make a difference in healthcare and, most often, for patient care. We’re medication experts, each in our own right. And, just like medical doctors, pharmacists play specialized roles, with many of us completing post-graduate residencies.
You may be surprised to learn we work in hospitals, doctor offices, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, law offices, medical research facilities, federal government agencies, health technology companies, and also, yes—pharmacies.
Pharmacists are prescribers now, and there’s no going back. While states authorize pharmacist prescribing in different ways, the fact is that pharmacists nationwide have turned a significant corner in recent years.
In many states, pharmacists can prescribe a particular medication under special circumstances; in others, we are empowered to manage multiple conditions. For example, pharmacists can now prescribe COVID medication in every state, contraceptives in 20 states, and smoking cessation therapy in 17 states. Eleven states have gone even further, authorizing pharmacists to triage and treat minor ailments like urinary tract infections.
Pharmacists are board-certified in 14 specialties. It’s true! There are more than 49,000 pharmacists in the U.S. today certified to provide care in highly specialized fields, including oncology, pediatrics, and cardiology, to name a few. A growing number of pharmacists see board certification as an opportunity to advance the profession and improve patient outcomes.
Pharmacists are expanding into sports medicine. How exciting to see sports pharmacy on its way to becoming the next specialty practice in our industry. It’s time we treated patient-athletes as a unique population in pharmacy. Japan has been a great role model; they’ve had sports pharmacists for some time. Post-graduate certification and training programs are in development, but that does not mean pharmacists are waiting around. Several professional sports teams already have pharmacists on staff, including the Miami Dolphins, where Baptist Health South Florida pharmacists work with athletes to understand their medication regimens for optimal safety and efficacy.
Pharmacists are getting burned out. Although these exciting advancements in the pharmacy profession offer tremendous opportunities, too many community pharmacists are also dealing with burnout. Pharmacists are being asked to do so much that no matter how hard or long they work, the clock wins the race. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the community pharmacists in a 2021 survey said they did not have sufficient time to safely do all the patient care functions that come into their pharmacy on a daily basis.
While we are seeing promising changes in pharmacies, such as more use of robotics to streamline dispensing, expanded use of central fill automation, and moving away from task-based metrics, there is more to do.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can help in ways that may sound small but are quite impactful. For example, strategic use of technology can help alleviate burnout by taking on tedious tasks in a pharmacist’s day, such as checking electronic prescriptions for missing elements and manually typing the information into the pharmacy system. AI-powered solutions can do those things safely and efficiently, so pharmacists can spend less time on rote tasks. Streamlining the workflow gives pharmacists time to do more of what gives so many of them energy and purpose, like direct patient care and interaction.
So next time you learn someone is a pharmacist, surprise them by asking what type of work they do! It will make their day to get a question like that. You may find that they don’t wear the white coat of a neighborhood pharmacist but contribute to healthcare in other important ways. Pharmacy has changed, and pharmacists are changing still – but make no mistake: this is a patient-centered revolution. Make sure you take full advantage of it.