Pharmacy Assistants Merle Cummings (left) and Claudia Mauro

When a good assist becomes the goal

By Mike Daly
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In hockey, few goals are scored without an assist. Now, much the same came be said for the world of clinical pharmacy.

The position of Pharmacy Assistant (previously titled Pharmacy Technician) has been around for decades but it’s starting to make a significant impact on clinical aspects of patient care. With the expanding scope of practice for pharmacists in Manitoba and across the country, pharmacy assistants are in a unique position to take on new and challenging roles. In addition to invaluable technical support, pharmacy assistants provide clinical support to pharmacists by collecting Best Possible Medication History (BPMH) for medication reconciliation, updating/maintaining information in electronic patient charts, and collecting information necessary for performance reporting and audits.

Merle Cummings, who has decades of experience in the field of pharmacy, is currently serving as a pharmacy assistant with St. Boniface Hospital’s cardiac unit. She says a major part of her job is freeing up time for the hospital’s pharmacists.

“Pharmacists don’t have a lot of time,” she says. “As pharmacy assistants, we can make their jobs easier and more productive by doing some detective work with patients to get their medication history. That and some of our other duties help give pharmacists the time they need to focus on the patient and to more effectively collaborate with other members of the patient’s care team.”

While some of the patient’s medication history is available electronically via Manitoba’s Drug Program Information Network (DPIN), that source often doesn’t tell the whole story.

“What we see on DPIN (which lists all prescriptions a patient has filled over the last six months) doesn’t always accurately reflect what the patient is really doing with their medications,” Cummings says. “A large part of my job involves gathering as much information as I can so that the care team has the best possible starting point when they are caring for the patient.”

To accomplish that, Cummings often has to interview the patient, a family member, or the patient’s retail pharmacist to more fully explore not only which medications have been prescribed, but how the patient is actually using them.

“People sometimes tend to adjust their medications to suit themselves,” she says. “For instance, a prescription might say to take one pill at four times during the day, but because the patient is busy, they may opt to take all four at once and go about their business. Other people may be taking a number of herbal remedies or illicit drugs that won’t show up on DPIN, but which may react adversely with the medications prescribed by their physician.”

Circumstances like those make investigative work all the more important, says Pharmacy Assistant Claudia Mauro, who splits her time between ACCESS Transcona and Lion’s Place clinics.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of a good medication history. DPIN is an important tool, but the best method for getting an accurate picture of a patient’s medication history is actually speaking with the patient or getting them to bring in their medication with them,” she says. “In some cases, getting an accurate history takes only a few minutes, but in others it can be quite time consuming. The position of pharmacy assistant was created to help take that workload out of the hand of the pharmacists, so that they can better concentrate on the more critical areas of their practice.”

That’s no small contribution, Mauro says.

“Generally speaking, I don’t think people fully understand the pharmacists’ role and how broad it is. Their time is at a premium. So whether I’m compiling a medication history, getting the result of a blood culture test, re-stocking vaccines, or answering a question from a nurse or physician about medication storage, I know that my work is important and appreciated. And I’m happy to help out in any way I can.”

That’s a sentiment Cummings shares.

“Every contribution from each person on the care team is important,” she says. “The contributions we make as pharmacy assistants allow other members of the team to do what they do best. It always comes down to patient safety, and to taking a collaborative approach that helps ensure that, as a team, we’re doing the best we can for our patients. That’s the bottom line.”

Editor's Note: This is one of three stories we're running to help celebrate Pharmacist Awareness Month (March). For the other stories in the series, click here and here.