Posted on 05.27.2024

Do I want to work in a retail pharmacy or an institutional pharmacy? You may have already asked yourself this question in the course of your pharmacy technician training. There are certainly differences to consider, and both environments are not right for everyone. Find out what working in each setting is like in this guide where we explore the similarities and differences between the two and decide which is best for you.

Jump to:

Differences between retail and institutional pharmacy

The biggest distinction between the working in a retail pharmacy or an institutional pharmacy is the public interaction you have on a daily basis. Retail, or community pharmacies, are designed to serve the needs of their customers. You will be directly helping customers, stocking shelves, and recording patient information in the pharmacy computer.

In a retail pharmacy, a technician needs to do many near-simultaneous tasks with focused care and attention to detail. The technician greets customers on the phone, in the store, and at the drive-through window. The pharmacy technician plays an important role in reducing patient waiting time by efficiently and correctly scanning or entering information into a patient database.

Institutional, or hospital pharmacy, involves less public interaction. Working in a hospital pharmacy may involve going on rounds with the doctor or medical students if the particular hospital does rounds, according to Jesie Davenport, CPhT, pharm tech academic lead, and instructor.

You’re also filling medications for different timeframes when working in institutional pharmacy vs community pharmacy. In institutional pharmacy, you’re usually only filling medication for a supply of 24-72 hours as opposed to 30 or 90 days. You could also find yourself making IVs in a hospital pharmacy and you may even get the opportunity to watch surgery in this type of setting!

The technician also assists with the filling of prescriptions by doing such things as retrieving drug stock bottles and labeling medications to be dispensed to patients. A pharmacy technician may also be involved in resolving insurance issues.

Retail pharmacy vs institutional pharmacy (comparison table)

Community Institutional
High patient/public interaction Little to no patient interaction
Set schedule and hours 24 hours of coverage needed, including overnight
Dispense medications in 30-90 day doses Dispense medication in 24-72 hour doses
Job duties can be monotonous Job duties can vary, making the work day more thrilling
May or may not require certification or license, depending on state requirements More likely to require certification or license, depending on state requirements
Payscale is often less Payscale is often higher

Read more: Can You Become a Pharmacy Tech Without Going to School?

Job duties of a retail pharmacy technician

There are some job duties unique to a retail pharmacy:

  • Greeting customers and receiving written prescriptions
  • Answering the telephone and referring call-in prescriptions to the pharmacist
  • Initiating refills requested by patients in person or by telephone
  • Resolving questions about the prescription (name, directions, and so on) with the physician’s office
  • Updating the patient’s profile, including patient demographics, allergies, and health conditions
  • Entering or updating billing information for third-party reimbursement
  • Entering new prescriptions (or refill requests) into the patient profile
  • Preparing medication container labels for prescriptions, including partial fills and out-of-stock medications
  • Submitting prescription claims online to insurance providers
  • Contacting insurance companies to resolve eligibility or prescription processing issues
  • Retrieving drug products from storage in the restricted prescription area
  • Counting, reconstituting, packaging, and repackaging products
  • Returning stock bottles to the proper storage location
  • Distributing labeled medications to the patient after final verification by the pharmacist
  • Offering a medication counseling opportunity for the patient
  • Accepting payments, including copayments
  • Storing completed prescriptions for patient pickup
  • Retrieving medications for patient pickup once patient verification is completed

Read more: The Value of Soft Skills in Healthcare

Similarities between Institutional pharmacy and community pharmacy

Hospital and community pharmacies do have some things in common. Latoya Hill, CareerStep Pharmacy Technician instructor, advises that the goal in both settings is the same.

“Dispensing medication to patients is the goal in both settings. Pharm techs are super hands on with the medications and are responsible for managing inventory, which includes ordering medications, making sure that the shelves are stocked properly, checking if there are any medications that expired or are out of date and removing them from the shelves. You want to make sure that you have a proper level of inventory so you can service your patients.”

Most of the prescriptions dispensed at a community pharmacy are oral medication or prepackaged specialty medications, such as inhaled drugs for the lungs, ophthalmics for the eye, otics for the ear, and topicals for the skin. Hospital pharmacies dispense those too; however, the range of drugs dispensed is much broader in hospitals. They may also dispense parenteral drugs, biological agents, and potentially hazardous chemotherapy medications. As a hospital pharmacy technician, you would play a key role in preparing and delivering the right drug to the right patient at the right time.

Job duties of an institutional pharmacy technician

Some job duties unique to a hospital pharmacy technician include:

  • Filling medication orders (as opposed to prescriptions)
  • Routinely preparing 24–72 hour supplies of patient medications in a form appropriate for a single administration to a patient (as opposed to a 30 or 90 day supply)
  • Prepackaging medications for patient use
  • Delivering stat orders or emergency medications to the patient care unit or patient room
  • Stocking patient care unit with floor stock medications and supplies
  • Preparing parenteral products using aseptic techniques
  • Following universal precautions in the IV room
  • Ensuring that biological and hazardous agents are handled and disposed of properly
  • Auditing pharmacy services for evaluation of service accuracy and quality
  • Maintaining a drug information service and providing drug information to the other healthcare professionals in the institution
  • Preparing and maintaining a formulary—a select list of approved drugs
  • Conducting drug use evaluations, such as appropriate use of antibiotics
  • Providing in-service drug-related education to nurses and physicians
  • Taking and documenting medication histories on admission
  • Monitoring patient outcomes
  • Counseling patients at discharge from the hospital
  • Participating in clinical drug investigations and research
  • Providing expert consultations in such areas as pediatric pharmacotherapy, nutritional support, and pharmacokinetics

Read more: How to Cultivate a Career Network

Which pharmacy setting is right for you?

Both community and hospital pharmacy settings come with a long list of responsibilities for the pharm tech. But which one should you ultimately decide to work in?

If you’re a people person who values getting to know and helping the people in your community, retail may be the way to go. Introverts looking for an exciting environment without much socialization could thrive more in the hospital setting. These may not be the only factors to consider, however.

Jesie Davenport, CPhT, pharm tech academic lead, and instructor, has experience working in both environments.

“Getting into institutional pharmacy is very difficult if you have no experience,” she says. “Retail is very entry level, but I would say for anyone brand new to pharm tech, that’s definitely where you want to get your feet wet because you’re going to be stuck in a very high paced environment and you’re going to learn all the medications quickly.”

It could be very beneficial to get an internship in either of these settings, particularly if institutional pharmacy is where you want to end up. While both options have their pros, Latoya says, “you want to be happy and be able to function, and with a field like this where you are ultimately being in service to others, you’ve got to be 100% yourself before you can be 100% to someone else.”

Read more: How CareerStep Can Help You Get Hired

Get started on the road to success as a pharmacy technician

No matter what direction you choose, retail or institutional, becoming a pharmacy technician can be a rewarding, fast-paced career. If you’re looking to break into this field, consider enrolling in CareerStep’s Pharmacy Technician Program to get the right education under your belt and prepare for certification. You’ll be helping patients before you know it!