Contemporary Pharmacy Practice: Part 1/4

I’m so pleased to have Sarah Sundin back. She’s going to give us a glimpse of her real life as a pharmacist in a four-part series.

Welcome back, Sarah!

Fiction writers do mean things to their characters. If those mean things require pharmaceutical care, you may find the need to introduce a pharmacist character. Or if medications play any role in your story, you’ll need to understand how pharmacies work. As a pharmacist myself, I want to help you get those details straight.
Today’s article is a general overview of the pharmacy profession. The following articles will discuss pharmacy education and training, practice in the community pharmacy setting, and practice in the hospital setting.
Meet Your Pharmacist

Sarah’s Graduation: UC San Francisco 1991

A pharmacist is the member of the health care team primarily concerned with the safe and effective use of medications. Although the profession of pharmacy is relatively small—268,030 employed pharmacists in the United States in 2010, according to the Board of Labor Statistics (1) —pharmacy plays a vital role in health care.

People drawn to pharmacy enjoy math and science, and tend to be detail oriented, methodical, and conscientious. Although many pharmacists are naturally quiet, they do tend to enjoy working with people. For the record, modern pharmacists strongly dislike being called “druggists.” Please don’t use this term in your contemporary novels. Thank you.


Traditionally, pharmacy was a profession for white males, and even as late as 2004, 54% of licensed pharmacists were male, 88% were white, and only 7% were Asian and 2% black. However, the demographics of the profession have shifted dramatically over the past few decades, with extreme gains by women and Asians in particular. In 2004, 67% of doctorates in pharmacy (the entry degree as of 2000) were awarded to women, 23% to Asians, 7.7% to blacks, and 3.7% to Hispanics. (2)
One of the reasons pharmacy appeals to women is the ability to work part-time. Indeed, 24% of female pharmacists work part-time, primarily between the ages of 31-35 during the child-rearing years. Conversely, only 13% of male pharmacists work part-time, mostly over the age of 72.
Areas of Practice
About 65% of pharmacists work in a community pharmacy, filling prescriptions in either chain or independent drug stores. Another 22% work in hospital pharmacies. Others work as consultants for skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes), in pharmacy education, for governmental agencies, or for pharmaceutical companies—in clinical research or to provide drug information for other health care professionals.
The traditional responsibility of the pharmacist is to purchase, store, compound, prepare, and dispense medications. Most medications are currently available from commercial manufacturers, leading to a diminishment of the pharmacist’s role in compounding—mixing ingredients to create elixirs, tablets, pills, suppositories, ointments, etc.
However, as the quantity and complexity of medications increases, pharmacists have positioned themselves as the medication experts. The practice of “clinical pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical care” involves working closely with physicians, nurses, and patients to assure the best possible care for the patient. Pharmacists are trained to watch for allergies, drug-drug interactions, and drug-disease interactions, and to adjust doses based on kidney or liver function, age, and weight. To increase patient compliance, pharmacists educate patients about their medications and answer questions.
Proper pharmaceutical care has been shown to decrease medication errors and the cost of therapy.
Pharmacist Shortage
A shortage of pharmacists has existed for several decades as the demand outstripped the graduation rate. This bumped up salaries significantly. In 2010, the average salary was $109,000, but this varies widely by geographic region. The shortage protected the profession from the recent economic downturn. However, many new schools of pharmacy have opened in the past decade, and the economic downturn has led pharmacists to postpone retirement and to work more hours. Anecdotally, fewer positions are open, and salaries are leveling off.
1)      Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2010: 29-1051 Pharmacists. United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Accessed 29 Sept 2011.
2)      Report of the ASHP Task Force on Pharmacy’s Changing Demographics Am J Health-Syst Pharm. 2007; 64: 1311-9. American Society of Health-System Pharmacists website. Accessed 29 Sept 2011.
      Sarah Sundin is the author of the Wings of Glory series from Revell: A Distant Melody (March 2010), A Memory Between Us (September 2010), and Blue Skies Tomorrow (August 2011). She has a doctorate in pharmacy from UC San Francisco and works on-call as a hospital pharmacist.

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