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What is a Pharmacist and What Does a Pharmacist Do?

Published on: Nov 6, 2022
By: Jim Herbst, PharmD, BCPPS
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Pharmacists are the medication experts.  Much like the physician is responsible for providing medical care, the nurse is accountable for providing nursing care, and other healthcare team members trust the pharmacist to provide pharmaceutical care.  The pharmacist is often the most accessible member of the healthcare team to the general public, and the pharmacist usually has the most incredible opportunity to promote a healthy lifestyle and enhance patient care.

Historically, the pharmacist's role has centered around preparing and distributing medications and drug products, but that role has dramatically evolved and expanded in the last 20 years.  While today’s pharmacy profession is still responsible for pharmaceutical care, it is much more patient-centered, outcomes-oriented, and collaborative than it once was. 

Today's pharmacists can be involved in various responsibilities, such as medication therapy management (MTM), point-of-care testing (such as COVID-19), and immunizations.  Many pharmacists have collaborative practice agreements with physicians, allowing them to order and manage certain medications within their scope of practice.

At its core, the pharmacist is responsible for:

  • Dispensing prescription after verifying medication instructions are clear and valid and that medications will not interact negatively with the patient’s existing medications (including over-the-counter products, herbal supplements, and nutraceuticals) or conditions

  • Counsel patients on how and when to take prescribed medications, as well as inform patients of common or potential side effects of medications

  • Advise patients on the proper use of medication or monitoring devices, such as injectable insulin pens or glucose monitoring devices

  • Recommend appropriate over-the-counter medications to treat a variety of conditions across the age spectrum from infants to the elderly

  • Guide patients on general health concepts, including diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and lifestyle modifications that help manage or control chronic diseases

  • Administer vaccinations

  • Collaborate with prescribers and insurers to provide patients with affordable access to medication

  • Manage pharmacy technicians as well as pharmacists in training (pharmacy interns)

  • Teach healthcare professionals about the role of meditation therapies and their place in managing and treating diseases and disorders

The Pharmacist Oath

Upon graduation, each pharmacist vows to serve the public responsibly by reciting the pharmacist oath:

"I promise to devote myself to a lifetime of service to others through the profession of pharmacy. In fulfilling this vow:

  • I will consider the welfare of humanity and the relief of suffering my primary concerns.

  • I will promote inclusion, embrace diversity, and advocate for justice to advance health equity.

  • I will apply my knowledge, experience, and skills to the best of my ability to assure optimal outcomes for all patients.

  • I will respect and protect all personal and health information entrusted to me.

  • I will accept the responsibility to improve my professional knowledge, expertise, and self-awareness.

  • I will hold myself and my colleagues to the highest principles of our profession’s moral, ethical and legal conduct.

  • I will embrace and advocate changes that improve patient care.

  • I will utilize my knowledge, skills, experiences, and values to prepare the next generation of pharmacists.

I take these vows voluntarily with the full realization of the responsibility with which I am entrusted by the public.” 

Pharmacists receive a doctorate, the highest degree awarded for academic pursuit.  Many healthcare professionals have achieved this high level of education to practice in their field.  Pharmacists (PharmD) join physicians (medical doctors-MD or doctors of osteopathic medicine-OD), nurse practitioners (DNP), dentists (DDM), podiatrists (DPM), psychologists (PsyD), physical therapists (DPT), optometrists (OD), as well as many other health professions, to use their high level of expertise and knowledge to care for patients.

A pharmacist uses their expertise in pharmaceutical care to treat and care for patients, collaborate with the healthcare team, serve the needs of the public by promoting population health concepts, and manage pharmacy locations, systems, and services.

What does a pharmacist do?

Ultimately, pharmacists are the medication experts no matter what setting they practice in.  The roles and responsibilities of a pharmacist vary based on their practice setting.  The two most common types of pharmacy roles are retail and hospital pharmacists.

What does a pharmacist do: the retail pharmacist

A retail pharmacist practices in a community pharmacy, which is typically within a large retail chain (CVS or Walgreens), a grocery store (Kroger), or an independent pharmacy. These pharmacists optimize patient care by ensuring that maintenance medications and medications needed during an acute illness are safe and appropriate. When a prescription is sent to your local community pharmacy, the pharmacist receives and reviews the provider order. 

This includes a prospective drug utilization review (DUR) of the patient profile to assess any medication interactions, contraindications, and appropriateness of prescribed medications. This ensures patient safety by identifying and resolving any problems prior to the patient receiving their medication. These include drug-drug interactions, drug-disease contraindications, abuse/misuse, and dosage changes, to name a few. The prescription is then sent to the technicians and interns to be filled. 

Once the prescription is filled and verified, the pharmacist dispenses the medication and provides medication counseling to the patient. Not only are community pharmacists drug experts in prescriptions, but they are also the go-to for OTC product information.  In addition to performing this service, retail pharmacists are often responsible for other public health duties, such as administrating immunizations, checking blood pressure, and providing counseling (teaching) to manage chronic diseases.  This education may encourage adherence to training the patient on using a new continuous glucose monitoring device or giving injectable medications to prevent migraines.

The workdays of a community pharmacist consist of leading the pharmacy technician (pharmacy tech) team as well as pharmacy interns (pharmacy school students employed by the pharmacy), receiving and reviewing provider orders, maintaining records of controlled and non-controlled prescriptions, providing immunizations and direct patient care, and maintaining an open line of communication with providers. Work hours are flexible depending on the pharmacy. Community pharmacists can work the typical “9 to 5” overnight at 24-hour stores, part-time, become floater pharmacists, work at different pharmacies within the same chain, and sometimes work the weekends, depending on the pharmacy. 

What does a pharmacist do: the hospital pharmacist

At its most basic level, the role of a pharmacist in a hospital is similar to that of a pharmacist in a retail or community setting: review a medication order written by a prescriber to assess its appropriateness given the patient’s current clinical picture and get it to the patient safely and efficiently.  Similarly, a pharmacist at a hospital pharmacy is expected to manage and lead a pharmacy technician team. 

This setting, however, typically affords the pharmacist more information.  Many hospitals have electronic health records (EHRs) or medical records (EMRs), enabling pharmacists to access patients' detailed medical records.  The patient in this setting may be acutely sick and may have varying degrees of organ dysfunction.  This state of instability in organ function results in unique medication concerns.  A dose of medication that a patient was on for a long time in the community may no longer be appropriate if he or she is hospitalized in the critical care unit. Hospital pharmacists must rely on their pharmacy education to make appropriate real-time decisions.

While the retail pharmacist and the hospital pharmacy are the two main avenues for pharmacy practice, pharmacists have many other opportunities.  These positions involve clinical pharmacy acumen, patient care, interactions with other healthcare professionals, and education.

portrait of Jim Herbst PharmD

Jim Herbst, PharmD, BCPPS is an advanced patient care pharmacist at a nationally ranked pediatric acute care teaching hospital.  Dr Herbst received his Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the Ohio State University in 2012.  He started his clinical career as an inpatient patient care pharmacist covering the neurology and complex care services, before transitioning to a pediatric neurology ambulatory care clinic in 2019. 

Dr Herbst's areas of interest in pediatric neurology include treatment-resistant pediatric epilepsy, infantile spasms, the ketogenic diet, and neuroimmunology.  He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed pharmacy and neurology journals, including Neurology, Epilepsia, and the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.  Dr Herbst is board certified as a pediatric pharmacy specialist.

Opinions and information published by the author here on PharmDDegree.com are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer.

Education: Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), The Ohio State University
Knowledge: Advanced Patient Care Pharmacy, Neurology, Epilepsia