December 15, 2010

Pick Me! I Was a Pharmacy Technician

by Kasey Dumas, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Sibley Memorial Hospital 
Many universities consider previous pharmacy work experience to be a predictor of better academic performance in pharmacy school.  Attesting to this fact is that some pharmacy schools include information on their websites implying that work experience may enhance an applicant’s chance of acceptance.  For example, the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy website states, “Work experience is not required for admission.  However, it can show commitment to the field of pharmacy or can demonstrate the well-roundedness of an applicant.”1 The Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Pharmacy website states that previous work experience is not required but, “exposure to pharmacy practice is desirable” and “ideally, successful candidates have some exposure to the health care system and patient care involvement.”2  This is a interesting hypothesis, but what needs to be tested is whether previous pharmacy-related work experience results in improved academic outcomes.
A study conducted in April 2010 at the Touro University College of Pharamacy evaluated the impact of previous pharmacy work experience on academic success.  This study was looking at both academic and clinical performance.  A survey was used to determine the type and quantity of pharmacy work experience.  The survey results from 206 responding students were then correlated with grade point average (GPA), high-stakes examination grades, and advanced pharmacy practice experience (APPE) grades.  The researchers also stratified the data by student demographics.  The results of this study showed no difference in academic performance between students with previous work experience and those without previous work experience.3 
Unfortunately, the results of this study may not be generalizable to other pharmacy schools (or health professional disciplines).  The average age of respondents in the Touro study was 26 years in respondents with no work experience and 27.3 years in respondents with work experience.  Some institutions accept students immediately from high school into 6-year programs.  Thus, the effects of work experience may be different if the average age is much younger (or older).  Also, assessment strategies and grading methodologies differ between institutions.  Finally, surveys in general have poor response rates and may not accurately represent the entire student body.
One explanation as to why work experience does not translate into better academic outcomes is that working as a technician or intern teaches you technical skills, but not clinical skills, which are now the focus of pharmacy curriculums.3  Although academic performance does not appear to be effected by work experience, previous experience in a pharmacy may indicate that a perspective student is more sure of their future and may be more dedicate to the profession.1,2  In the future, it may be beneficial for researchers to examine other benefits that previous work experience may confer.
Previous work experience may be a useful way to select between students and it may predict some other desirable attribute(s).  In my experience, working as a pharmacy technician made me more confident when I entered pharmacy school, more certain that I had made the best career choice, and made studying for many of the technical aspects easier, such as learning brand and generic names of medications.  Also, during my clinical experiences, I was already comfortable interacting with members of the pharmacy team and speaking with physicians and nurses.
In conclusion, although experience has not been shown to improve academic performance, other benefits may be afforded to students (and the schools that accept them) who have previous work experience.  I believe that universities should continue to use previous work experience as one the criteria to select applicants but we need further studies to better understand how previous pharmacy-related experience impacts short and long-term outcomes.

1.      University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.  PharmD Admissions: Prerequisites.  Accessed: Dec 2010.
2.      Virginia Commonwealth University School of Pharmacy.  Pharm. D. Program FAQ: Academic info.  Accessed: Dec 2010.
3.      Mar E, Barnett MJ, Tang TTL, Sasaki-Hill D, Kuperberg JR, Knapp K.  Impact of previous pharmacy work experience on pharmacy school academic performance.  American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.  2010; 74 (3): Article 42.

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