According to the Center for Disease Control, about 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy each year. Chemotherapy is one of the most utilized treatments for cancer that exists today. Each patient will have a different schedule, dose, and type of drug combination depending on the type of cancer and other health factors. The process of creating the chemotherapy drug falls to the chemotherapy pharmacist, who is an important part of the patient’s care team.
What is a Chemotherapy Pharmacist?
A chemotherapy pharmacist is sometimes called an oncology pharmacist. As part of the oncology team, they help patients with the treatments they go through as part of their cancer care plan. Unlike other types of pharmacists, chemotherapy pharmacists are very actively involved in many areas of a patient’s care.
Chemotherapy pharmacists’ duties may include safety checks, education, development, and research, as well as administering or prescribing medication and being a resource for other members of the care team as treatment is coordinated.
Oncology pharmacists are key members of a patient’s healthcare team. They have specialized training and knowledge about how medications work to battle cancer. They work with nursing and medical staff to maximize the advantages and benefits of drug therapy, while also trying to minimize toxicities. Oncology pharmacists, with other medical staff help coordinate a medication plan, from chemotherapy therapy as an inpatient, to medications needed to be taken at home. Oncology pharmacists also educate patients about what to expect during treatment, and to ensure that medication is taken on time, and in the correct doses.
Chemotherapy is one of the main methods of treating cancer, and as such, needs to be prepared carefully with full knowledge of how each element and decision may affect the patient. Preparing one dose of chemotherapy may take between 20 and 40 minutes, depending on the type, ingredients, and process. Some use powders, for example, that need time to dissolve, and the complete chemotherapy drug may include up to six separate ingredients.
Educational Requirements for Becoming a Chemotherapy Pharmacist
The minimum educational requirement for becoming a chemotherapy pharmacist is a Pharm.D. degree with subsequent follow-up training in chemotherapy pharmacy.
Step-by-Step Educational Path for Becoming a Chemotherapy Pharmacist
For all professional degrees, students who prepare and utilize their undergraduate experience effectively, will find they have a leg-up on the competition, and will be more prepared for the advanced stages of training. The same applies for aspiring pharmacy school students. Undergraduate years can be used to gain the experience, knowledge, mentorship, and understanding that will help the student enter pharmacy school and excel at their studies.
The first task as an undergraduate is to take all of the necessary courses that are required by pharmacy schools. Each school lists their own set of pre-requisites, and they may differ slightly among schools. Most schools require a student take a combination of the following courses.
Taking the proper courses will not enrage a student will gain entry into pharmacy school. They must also do well, have a competitive cumulative GPA, and devise a plan to gain experience in a medical or pharmaceutical setting. All pharmacy schools publish their “expected GPA” for incoming students, which is an important component of student consideration. They also publish their minimum Pharmacy College Admissions Test (see below) scores and interview information, which should be reviewed by the applicant.
A complete list of pharmacy schools and their requirements is available on the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy website. Thorough review of these requirements as soon as possible in a student’s education, will help them better prepare for the application process, as well as ensure they have met all of the requirements for a competitive application.
Pharmacy College Admissions Test
The Pharmacy College Admissions Test (PCAT) is a requirement for entry into pharmacy school. This test ensures that an incoming student has the level of knowledge and understanding they need to succeed in the more advanced classes they have yet to take. It measures both general academic ability and scientific knowledge, and takes about four hours to complete.
After taking the PCAT, the student’s choices of pharmacy schools receive their final score as part of their application packet.
Almost all pharmacy schools have four-year programs that include both class and lab work, as well as externships. This allows the candidate to gain experience in the pharmacy setting and train under licensed pharmacists as mentors. The pharmacy school curriculum includes pharmaceutics, biological systems, health care delivery systems, biochemical and molecular sites, public health and epidemiology, immunology, nutrition, pharmacy law and ethics, travel medicine, and much more.
Students who know they want to specialize in chemotherapy pharmacy should use all available elective and externship opportunities offered, in order to gain experience working within the specialty. This can help them obtain the hours of experience needed for certification, as well as help them find placement in a residency or fellowship program that will lead to certification.
Fellowship or Residency
The Board of Pharmacy Specialties states that four years of experience and post-pharmacist licensure in oncology pharmacy is necessary in order to obtain specialization as a chemotherapy pharmacist. Candidates can also choose to complete a residency program in oncology pharmacy. Either way, the work experience or residency prepares the pharmacist for specialization.
Licensing and Certifications
Each state has specific requirements for pharmacy licensure. The requirements include state and national testing, continuing education, and mandatory fees. It is important that a pharmacist be familiar with the requirements of the state where they plan to practice in order to ensure their license is up-to-date and all of the ongoing requirements are met. An interruption in licensure can mean loss of a job, trouble re-licensing, and loss of specialization.
After either work experience or residency, a certification exam for the chemotherapy pharmacy specialization is taken. Passing this exam allows the pharmacist to claim their specialty, and work in specific environments and with cancer care teams.
Understanding the Career Path
Chemotherapy pharmacists can work in a clinical setting as part of a care team that focuses on patients diagnosed with cancer. As such, they are responsible for the medication that is kept on site, the dosing of drugs to patients, and education for patients, families, and other caregivers regarding the side effects of the drugs they are being given. In this setting, the pharmacist directly interacts with patients and helps with patient’s decisions, much more so than in a retail pharmacy setting.
It is likely that the pharmacist will have a designated, sterile area of the clinic where they handle medications and prepare medications for patients. They may or may not have technicians and other support staff at their disposal.
Oncology pharmacist salaries average $110,000 per year, with some sites stating the average is closer to $119,000. Top earners can expect a salary of around $150,000 a year. The salary range is dependent on a number of factors, including years of experience, certification, size of clinic or hospital where employed, and role in the pharmacy department. Salary can be further increased by working at a clinic or hospital that offers bonuses or other compensation to their employees.