By Annette M. Boyle
SAN ANTONIO – A newly minted Navy pharmacy technician could find herself working alone on a ship with no pharmacist within hundreds of miles. Daunting? Not to pharmacy technicians who have completed the Department of Defense pharmacy training program offered through the Medical Education and Training Campus (METC) at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, TX.
Since its establishment four years ago, the multiservice training program has graduated more than 400 pharmacy technicians annually, preparing them for virtually any deployment.
“They could be assigned to a full-service Army combat support hospital or a medical treatment facility (MTF), a line unit field pharmacy or pharmacy logistical unit,” said Lt. Col. Leslie Walthall, PharmD, program director, Pharmacy Technician Training Program. “In stateside deployments, they will typically work with a pharmacist, but we also prepare them for independent duty, which may be required on a ship or at a downrange clinic.”
METC trains servicemembers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard in a full range of pharmacy skills. The course, which is accredited by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP), covers pharmacy administration, laws and regulations, compounding, chemistry, therapeutics, basic anatomy, physiology, inpatient pharmacy operations, outpatient pharmacy operations, pharmacy supply operations, advanced pharmacy math and service-specific pharmacy practice, according to Walthall and Chief Petty Officer Faviola Vail, senior enlisted Advisor, Pharmacy Technician training program.
The classes quickly get into fairly advanced territory. “Because our technicians may be operating by themselves in places where multiple formulations of drugs are hard to get, we teach them compounding, which few civilian pharmacies do anymore, and they learn how to determine the best solution for IV drugs, something they wouldn’t have to do in a suburban pharmacy but may have to do in a combat hospital,” Walthall said.
Students also learn sterile product techniques, such as how to compound intravenous medications using sterile techniques to minimize contamination and comply with professional United States Pharmacopeia practice standards.
At the conclusion of the program, pharmacy technicians have the option to sit for the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PCTE). On average, METC Pharmacy Technician graduates exceed the civilian PCTE pass rates by more than 15 percentage points.
“Because of the intense demands on military pharmacy technicians, we want all our techs to be certified. Our program gives them the training to succeed on the test and in the field. Our civilian counterparts are now following our lead, so the demand for certified pharmacy technicians (CPhT) is rising,” Walthall said.
The training is so comprehensive that it qualifies for more than a year’s worth of college credit, Vail noted. Army and Navy graduates receive 35 college credits from the Community College of the Air Force plus four hours of recommended credits from the American Council on Education (ACE). Air Force and Coast Guard graduates earn 37 credits from the Community College of the Air Force.
The difference in credits arises from service-specific variations in the program. Sailors first go through the hospital corpsmen’s “A-school” program for four months. “A-school teaches them about basic patient administration, immunizations, basic life support and emergency medical technician skills,” said Vail. Then they report for Navy Week before the joint course begins to focus on the math and study skills needed to do well in the program.
“Sailors tend to do very well in the pharmacy technician program with all that additional training before they begin,” Vail noted.
The consolidated services portion of the program lasts 12 weeks. At that point, the Air Force and Coast Guard graduates move on to their three-week clinical rotation at Lackland, Keesler or Travis Air Force bases. The Army and Navy technicians continue on campus for an additional four weeks.
“Because they may have to operate independently on their first deployment, we make sure they are ready for anything,” Walthall said.
After the combined Army-Navy four-week program, soldiers have a six-week, service-specific and experiential rotation which includes a 72-hour field training exercise at a simulated field hospital at Camp Bullis in San Antonio. “We make it as real as we can, so they are fully prepared if they are deployed in that situation,” said Walthall. Sailors also have six weeks of service-specific and experiential clinical rotation training.
Walthall noted that the students in the program are expected to continue to meet the other requirements of their service branches as well as uphold their service culture.
“Everyone must maintain their physical fitness standards as well as keep up with their studies. If they are in the Navy, they come back to the dorm, render honors to the ensign and treat the space as the quarterdeck,” she said. “If they are in the Army, they have physical fitness at 5 a.m., perform personal hygiene and march to the dining facility to eat. Classes start at 8 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. After class, soldiers are marched to chow, perform company training and duties, study and lights out at 8:30 p.m.”
The intense program offers multiple benefits for young servicemembers, Walthall said. “Many of our students have just graduated from high school. We give them a lot of information in a very short period of time and teach them effective time-management skills. It’s a great way to start out, whether they want to stay in the service for their career or do a tour and find a job in a civilian pharmacy. They earn college credits, learn life skills, qualify for the G.I. Bill and VA loan and gain certification and professional experience in a highly demanding field.”
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