A pharmacist is a health care professional who is both qualified and licensed to dispense medicines and drugs on the written orders of physicians. Pharmacists also play a key role in educating and counseling patients about the use, risks and potential side effects of these substances to ensure that the medications are properly applied for optimal effect.
Because pharmacists handle large quantities of controlled substances with the potential to cause great damage if abused, misused or misapplied, it is both necessary and desirable that they be highly responsible, highly trained and also licensed by state boards which oversee their actions.
To qualify and practice as a pharmacist, one must hold a minimum of a PharmD (Doctor of Pharmacy) degree. Like most doctorate degrees, this requires approximately six years of post-secondary schooling. Following graduation, the prospective pharmacist must perform an internship and pass a comprehensive state exam, the NAPLEX (North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination), as well as a second exam, which varies on a state-to-state basis.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are currently 89 accredited colleges that offer programs leading to a PharmD degree.
Traditionally, the role of the pharmacist has been to fill prescriptions written by doctors and to dispense the drugs and medicines prescribed. Pharmacists also provide patients with information and cautions about the use of the medications. They also counsel physicians about the selection and effects of pharmaceuticals, and sometimes administer vaccinations in clinics, making such preventive medications as the annual flu vaccine easily available to residents of their community. Another task that pharmacists frequently perform is supervising pharmacy program interns before they can be licensed.
Pharmacists can be employed in numerous locations, including hospitals, nursing facilities, long-term care and geriatric residential facilities, clinics, or retail stores such as drug stores or supermarket pharmacies.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were approximately 230,000 full-time pharmacists working in the U.S. in 2004. Of this population, about one-quarter were employed in hospitals and nearly two-thirds worked in retail stores. The Department of Labor also predicts that employment opportunities in the field of pharmacy are expected to be excellent well into the next decade.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average annual salary of pharmacists in 2004 was almost $85,000, with a range running from about $61,000 to a high of more than $109,850.