Questions and Answers About Pharmacy
What is Pharmacy?
Students often have questions about what “pharmacy” really is. Before applying to a pharmacy program, it is a good idea you have an understanding about what you are about to undertake. The following section is meant to provide an overview of the profession and provide answers to some of the common questions about studying and practicing pharmacy in Canada.
Although all efforts have been made to ensure that the information below is current and comprehensive, CAPSI cannot guarantee the content on this page is exclusive.
So what is pharmacy?
Pharmacy is a profession and field of the health sciences that is charged with the provision of ensuring safe and effective use of medications by the public. Traditionally pharmacy and the role of the pharmacist have included the compounding and dispensing of medications, however, more recently pharmacists are playing an increasing role in providing patient care and services including medication review, clinical practice, and drug information. The pharmacist may also be found involved in drug research and development, evaluation, drug monitoring, as well as consulting. As drug experts, pharmacists are trained in understanding how medications work, their role in therapy for a particular condition, side effects, interactions, and monitoring parameters. They are responsible for communicating this knowledge to their patients, as well as other health care professionals as a member of an interdisciplinary team. Pharmacists are able to assess and determine if the drug therapy will be necessary, safe, and effective in an individual patient, while working as a part of a health care team to ensure this is realized.
Hence, pharmacy is much more than a field of study. It is a career which allows you to use your extensive knowledge of medications in order to improve the patient’s drug therapy outcomes and enhance their quality of life. Rewarding, isn’t it?
How does this differ from getting a degree in pharmacology?
A pharmacy degree lead to degree with the area of study in pharmacy, but you are also designed a professional. This degree is designed to generate a pharmacist, who not only has the medication knowledge, but who also works at the interface of the public as an essential part of the health care team. In Canada, it is not an entry-level degree, as you cannot apply to pharmacy without having completed a set of prerequisites, which is usually achieved by taking first year science. As a professional you must also complete a national licensing exam and you are regulated by your provincial regulatory body.
Pharmacology is the science which deals with the study drug composition and properties, interactions, toxicology, therapy, and their medical applications. This is traditionally a four-year bachelor’s degree, whereas a degree is pharmacy requires a minimum of five years of study. Pharmacology is an important part of the pharmacy curriculum, although it is not covered in as much detail as a degree in this field would. Upon graduation, individuals with the pharmacologist cannot practice pharmacy, but they can conduct research in medical development, safety testing, drug legislation (for example the FDA) and many others.
What will I study in school?
The pharmacy curriculum varies between schools, but covers the same material. Prior to applying to pharmacy school, most schools require you take at least one year of *University courses in the areas of biology, chemistry, calculus and a social science. You will be ready to take anatomy, physiology and biochemistry to learn about what the body is made of and how it works. These courses are usually taken early on in the program, and may be supplemented with microbiology and organic chemistry. In first year, many students also get an introduction to practical pharmacy through a laboratory course and a course in pharmacy law. The bulk of the courses are structured in a comprehensive way, so that students learn about a disease, medications used to treat it, how these drugs work, and what types of non-prescription or herbal medications that may be used, if appropriate. This is usually done by taking courses in pathophysiology, therapeutics, pharmacology and natural health products. Throughout the program, there will likely also be courses in pharmacokinetics (the drug’s fate in the body), pharmaceutical chemistry and drug development. Be ready for a busy four years.
In addition, it would be difficult working as a pharmacist after graduation without having any practical experience. All schools have a mandatory set of rotations which occur either in the summers, throughout your studies classes and/or in the final year of studies. Rotations are done in community and hospital pharmacies, as well as industry, as directed studies or other places as designated by the respective pharmacy school.
Some faculties may also permit elective courses be taken in addition to your pharmacy courses. Again, please contact the school of your choice to inquire into this further as this is not a standard at every Canadian pharmacy school. Be sure to check with your school which electives are appropriate before perusing a minor in Greek mythology!
*Please note each school will have its own entry level requirement. Contact the school of your choice to obtain the most up to date entry level requirements.
What will I be doing after I graduate?
Graduating with a degree in pharmacy certainly opens doors for your future. There are a variety of careers that are available to pharmacists, and below is a list and description of the most common ones:
Community Pharmacy: Approximately, 85% percent of graduates go on and become employed in a community (or retail) pharmacy setting. In this field, a staff pharmacist is responsible for making sure that the prescribed drug therapy is appropriate, counselling the patient on their medication, and ensuring efficacy through monitoring. The community pharmacist is also available to make over-the-counter drug and herb recommendations and assess if the patient needs referral to another health care professional such as a doctor. As front line health care professionals, community pharmacists can also be involved in putting on clinics, participating in research, servicing facilities such as assisted living homes, and staying current with completing continuing education credits. In this career, there are also ownership and managerial opportunities, as well as preceptorship and mentoring of future pharmacists.
Hospital Pharmacy: As the title suggests, this is a career in which pharmacists who works within a hospital setting. Depending on the job, a one-year post-baccalaureate hospital residency is usually required, except in Quebec, where the program is a 2-year Masters program. A stipend is provided during the one-year residency to prepare the graduate for the clinical role of a hospital pharmacist. A hospital pharmacist usually works both on the ward as well as in the dispensary; the division of time between the two varies. On the ward, the pharmacist is usually responsible for medication reconciliation for newly admitted patients in order to ensure seamless care between the hospital and the community. They also review patient charts to ensure therapy is appropriate, safe, effective and administered optimally. In addition, the hospital pharmacist attends rounds, where they provide input on their expertise with regard to drug therapy. Hospital pharmacists also participate in research, continuing education, may be part of therapeutic or formulary boards and committees. A career in hospital pharmacy also allows for management, preceptorship, as well as the mentorship of future pharmacists.
Industry: There are also opportunities for pharmacists in drug research and development, either with large pharmaceutical companies, or with independent first venture firms. Contrary to popular belief that drug representatives are actually pharmacists, the industry has many diverse roles to offer. There are positions in all levels of the company structure, from research, production, marking, sales, professional services and all the way up to becoming the CEO (after much experience of course). A industrial residency or training may be required depending on your area of interest.
Academia: Do you envy the careers that your professors have? Being a pharmacist also enables you to never leave university – that is if you become member of the faculty. Some pharmacists, especially those who have completed higher education such as a Doctorate of Pharmacy (PharmD) or a PhD, are either full or part time lecturers in their department. This allows them to teach and mentor pharmacy students in the area of their expertise, while contributing to the revision of the faculty/school curriculum. Many professors also conduct research for the university and hold position with other faculties such as medicine or science. Faculty members also work with students through practical experiences such as directed studies programs or on-campus research conferences. A very diverse career indeed.
Regulatory Authorities: Part of the definition of being a profession requires that pharmacists be self-governing. All pharmacists who are practicing in a particular province or territory belong to a college or association that governs their profession. These regulatory bodies also require pharmacists to write, review, update pharmacy laws, ethics and obligations, in order to serve as a resource centre for their members, while possibly also advocating for the profession.
Other: And by “other” this means many many others. Pharmacists may also have careers in advocacy groups, governments, non-government associations, as well as serving in developing countries, investment banking, sales and trading, authors…the opportunities are endless. I hope that you can see what a diverse career pharmacy can be and the exciting opportunities that await you.