Becoming a Regulated Pharmacy Technician (RPT)…what’s the return on investment?

Most people, regardless of career path, rightly expect to receive some level of return on the investment (ROI) they make in their vocation.  This return may be defined on several levels and could include monetary gain, job satisfaction and growth opportunities.

Evidence to date suggests that becoming an RPT in a retail pharmacy setting may fall well short on all of these indicators.

Looking back a generation or so, most people working in a retail pharmacy (whether in the actual dispensary or in the front store)… and other than the licensed pharmacist, were essentially referred to as clerks.  The actual people (99% females) who worked alongside the pharmacist in the dispensary eventually became referred to as ‘pharmacy technicians’ or ‘techs’ for short.  To this day the vast majority of these people (whether legally/ officially or not) are referred to as ‘techs’.

Techs were also employed by hospitals, and increasingly these people were doing more and more complex tasks.  This allowed hospital pharmacists to spend more time performing ‘clinical activities’, once freed from the more mechanical aspects of dispensing.

At some point, the ‘powers that be’ decided that these techs needed more formal designation consistent with their higher level of involvement, and so the notion of regulation was spawned.  Generally speaking regulated pharmacy technicians working in hospitals today make about $20 per hour.  So regulation appears to have worked out well for these people.  (Please, any references to dollars I make are my best approximations from researching databases and personal experience, there are always exceptions).

Once again I refer to the ‘powers that be’ as a general term…regulatory/academic bodies in essence, decided that pharmacy technician regulation was a good idea for the retail pharmacy environment as well as for hospitals.  The rationale was that once again these RPT’s would free up pharmacists to perform more clinical patient focused functions

As a result, this regulatory decision created a completely new industry.  In Canada today there are literally hundreds of training schools (many are for profit private companies) as well as community colleges which offer everything from a 2 year intensive program leading to the Regulated Pharmacy Technician title, to various courses, generally 40 weeks, leading to Pharmacy Assistant (PA) title.

The cost to become an RPT, (including tuition of around $12,500, books/$500, plus incidentals) is at least $15,000 not including time allocation i.e. time not actually working.

The minimum wage in Ontario is currently $10.50 per hour.  Before pharmacy tech regulation, pharmacy technicians (as they were then informally called), usually made $12 to $13 per hour after a couple of years of experience.  Again, my numbers are approximate; the important point being that is was extremely rare for anyone doing these tasks was remunerated much above this range.  Today, after an investment of $15,000 not counting invested time, plus the obligation to pay the provincial regulatory bodies annual dues of $400, various exams such as jurisprudence $200, PEBC exams (which are really tough) of $1,275, plus annual liability insurance of $150, the average hourly wage appears to be around $14 per hour.  At a stretch, and assuming all this resulted in a $2 per hour differential, or a $4,000 a year increase, it would take a minimum of 5 years just to recoup the investment, while still incurring continuing $600 expenses annually for college/insurance fees.

It appears that ‘academia’ and the private technical schools have made out quite well by this decision to move to pharmacy regulation.  Even bigger beneficiaries are the provincial regulatory bodies which now collect substantial annual fees forever.  Unfortunately all this money has been generated/earned on the backs of people (mostly female) who could least afford it.

A helicopter view of the average pharmacy today, the vast majority of which are large retail/ box store operations, indicates that RPT’s, and their slightly poorer cousins PA’s, are essentially performing the very same tasks as they (or their counterparts then), were performing 20 years ago.  In many cases pharmacist overlap has now been eliminated as some of their tasks could now be downloaded to RPT’s resulting in considerable savings to the pharmacy owner.  And if anything, the ferociously and intensely competitive retail pharmacy environment today, demands increased stress levels and very tight wage cost controls.

So on the measure of compensation, ROI could be described as poor.  On the measure of job satisfaction if anything the situation has gone backwards.  On the measure of growth opportunities, I quote the recently published Business Insider Survey ‘The 20 Unhappiest Jobs in America’…pharmacy technician was ranked 19th.  Canada is not usually that different considering our similar economies.

The real winners here are:

Big Pharmacy Retail who acquired much higher qualified employees for no cost to them, and little ongoing costs going forward and probably net savings after reduction of pharmacist hours.

The provincial regulatory bodies which now collect healthy annual fees

The insurance industry which now gains a new source of premium paying clients

Community colleges and for profit private training schools which now collect healthy tuition fees

Conclusion:  ROI to individual pharmacy employees?      …Not so good.