METC pharmacy program teaches technical skills, customer service
By Lori Newman
JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Public Affairs
(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles highlighting the consolidated enlisted medical training programs offered by the Medical Education and Training Campus at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.)
How often do I need to take this medicine? Do I need to take this with food? Will this medication make me sleepy? Can I take this if I’m pregnant?
These are just a few of the questions students in the Medical Education and Training Campus Pharmacy Technician/Specialist Program are bombarded with at the outpatient pharmacy windows, along with other people grumbling: “Why is this taking so long? I’ve been waiting for an hour. Can’t you move any faster?”
“By using pharmacists and techs at the windows as mock patients we basically give the students that tough day here (at METC) when it’s a controlled environment,” explained Cmdr. Mathew Garber, Navy service lead for the pharmacy program. “The students don’t always know the right answer, but that’s the whole point.”
“We train them to a very high standard, so they are prepared for what’s ahead,” said Lt. Col. Leslie Walthall, the Army service lead for the pharmacy program. “It’s a very rigorous program. Our students live, breathe and eat pharmacy for an intense period of time.”
Phase one of the program is 12 weeks long, combining classroom study and hands-on learning.
The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Coastguardsmen learn the major disciplines of pharmacy operations including administration and supply; inpatient and outpatient pharmacy operations; human anatomy and physiology; mathematics; therapeutics and compounding.
Students are taught how the body’s major organ systems work, what diseases could affect them and what drugs will make them work again.
“We can’t tell them what a bronchial dilator is if they don’t know what a bronchial is,” Garber said.
“We go through all the different organ systems and investigate the top drugs. We don’t do 3,000 drugs in this program, but we do go through 700 or 800 that represent the major medication classes.”
Students not only learn technical skills, they also learn customer service skills by practicing outpatient pharmacy operations utilizing a 12-window pharmacy equipped with all the technology they will encounter once they graduate the program.
Students must process prescriptions, using the Composite Health Care System, the electronic medical records system used throughout the Department of Defense.
“They also get hands-on experience in pharmacy automation as well,” Walthall said. “We have robotic systems that dispense the medication.”
“Within our lab we have all the major types of robotics that are used out there. So we can give students good experience with what they are going to be using (in the field),” said Garber.
The students must also explain how to take the medications, what the possible side effects may be and how the medications may react when taken with certain foods or other drugs.
“The instructors throw different scenarios at the students to prepare them for what they may encounter when they are in a real pharmacy,” said Navy Capt. Derrik Clay, department chair, Ancillary Services.
“I love the hands-on portion,” said Coast Guard Health Services Technician 3rd Class Brittany Dykes. “Customer service is a very big part of the job. It’s realistic and it’s better training for actually being in the field.”
Inpatient pharmacy operations allow students to experience working with medications under ventilation hoods just as they would in a laboratory. Instructors evaluate each student’s sterile technique to make sure that chances for contamination are minimized. They are also assessed on their ability to select the best fluid, concentration and flow rate for the medication.
“Therapeutics is the study of therapeutic uses and effects of drugs on the body,” Clay explained. “That tends to be one of the hardest series of classes in the program.”
Another skill the service members learn is compounding or building drugs. This doesn’t occur a lot in the civilian world anymore but it is important for service members who may deploy, because all the medications may not be readily available.
“If the (local) pharmacy doesn’t have a medication, they can usually order it and have it the next day,” Garber said. “In the military sometimes, you’re in locations where you can’t order stuff and get it the next day. So we train students fairly extensively in compounding.”
Airman Crystal Moody said pharmacy was something she was interested in coming out of high school, going into college but didn’t get the opportunity to pursue it. Joining the Air Force allowed Moody to pursue her dream.
Army Pvt. Simonique Burns’ reason for choosing the pharmacy program was more personal.
“I want to be the person behind the scenes that helps my sister (because she is ill). I want to be the person making the drugs and IV bags she needs,” Burns said. “You are actually saving someone’s life, in my eyes.”
After phase one of the training, Army and Navy students must complete an additional 3 1/2 weeks of advanced service specific training followed by five weeks of clinical rotation.
The advanced training is required for the Soldiers and Sailors because they may deploy to remote locations around the world where there may not be a pharmacist to guide them.
The Army students also must complete a 72-hour field training exercise at JBSA-Camp Bullis.
Air Force students also complete three weeks of clinical rotation, followed by 18 months of on-the-job training.
The Coast Guard does on-the-job training before they enter the pharmacy technician program, but they also complete three weeks of clinical rotation.
Hospitalman Joshua Adams decided on the pharmacy program because he wants to further his career in the Navy.
“It will open a lot of doors for me to go into the medical field,” Adams said. “Whether I choose to go into pharmacy or become a nurse or physician’s assistant. It’s been a great course so far.”
After the students complete their training and clinical rotations they are eligible to take the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board exam.
The average national pass rate for the PTCB exam is about 70 percent. However, for METC students the average pass rate is 86 percent on the exam.
“The training students receive here is at a higher level and that’s why you see the better pass rates on the certification exam,” Garber said.
The METC pharmacy program is accredited by the American Society of Health System Pharmacists and students are eligible to receive up to 39 college credits.
“The ultimate goal is that on ‘day one,’ when they walk into a pharmacy they are an asset to that pharmacy.”
“We produce a very high caliber, well trained force able to meet our country’s mission,” Walthall added.