How To Specialize in Oncology or IV Meds as a Pharmacy Tech

Pharmacy tech is a career that offers stability, a good income and lots of potential for growth. It also offers you the chance to specialize if you choose. One option available to pharmacy techs is specializing in IV meds or oncology. But just what does that mean, and what extra training will you need?

Read on to find out.

Oncology and Chemotherapy Defined

Medical oncology is the term given to the branch of medicine that deals with the treatment of cancer. A doctor working in the field is known as an oncologist. A pharmacy tech who obtains a certification in Oncology works closely with both a supervising pharmacist and these dedicated doctors to ensure that patients get the chemotherapy medications they need when being treated at a hospital or in an outpatient clinic setting. 

Chemotherapy is a medication regime designed to kill cancerous cells and/or shrink cancerous tumors, and in some cases is also used to aid those suffering with severe forms of arthritis. There are dozens of different 'chemo drugs' and physicians usually order that several are used together in specific combinations in order to try to achieve the best possible outcomes. 

This is where the vital role of the pharmacist and pharmacy tech comes into the chemotherapy process, as these are the people tasked with mixing these very specific medication combinations accurately every time. 

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Chemotherapy Concerns

Chemotherapy Certification Course

Chemo Certified Pharmacy Tech (Source: NPTA) 

Chemotherapy has saved millions of lives all over the world, but it's not without its complications. To do its job - kill or shrink abnormal cancer cells - healthy cells are often destroyed at the same time. This thus far unavoidable side effect can result in health complications ranging from nausea and headache to hair loss, extreme fatigue and immunosuppression.

An even bigger concern is that if given in the wrong doses, the medications used in chemotherapy can be toxic. Most chemotherapy patients receive a combination of drugs that must be very carefully balanced. This means that the roles of the pharmacist and the pharmacy tech are pivotal, as they are the people responsible for ensuring that this very delicate balance is maintained at all times. 

The Special Skills An Oncology Pharmacy Tech Needs

An oncology pharmacy tech needs to have excellent math, organizational and communication skills. These are things that any pharmacy tech needs of course, but in this field those skills need to be exceptional, as the costs of a mistake can be very high.

An oncology pharmacy tech will also be required to make use of sometimes complex medical software on a daily basis too, so they need to be comfortable working with computers in a slightly more advanced level. 

What You'll Do as an Oncology Pharmacy Tech

Wondering just what a typical day is like for a tech working in oncology?

Although it will vary from facility to facility, you are likely to be asked to perform many of the following tasks:

  • Enter chemotherapy drug orders into a central system
  • Gather clinical data from patient medical record
  • Complete insurance documentation
  • Review patient's medication history
  • Double check the ratios of drugs to be used in combination
  • Safely mix and handle chemotherapy medications
  •  Maintain accurate records of medication mixes created
  • Maintain an accurate drug inventory
  •  Maintain a safe and sterile work environment
  • Assist pharmacists and physicians and other medical professionals in chemotherapy administration  

As you can now see, it's quite a demanding job, and calls for a lot of dedication and focus as well as specialist skills. For many working in the field already however, it's also a very satisfying one, especially as they can see firsthand the positive impact their work has directly on patients' lives and allows them to participate more directly in patient care.

Requirements to Begin Pharmacy Oncology Certification

Safe handling of hazardous drugs

The safe handling of hazardous drugs requires certification

If you decide that oncology is a field that appeals to you the first step toward working as a pharmacy tech is to obtain the proper certification.

While in some states a pharmacy tech certification is not formally required to work in many pharmacy settings, that is not the case when working in oncology. The processes that you'll need to be adept in are very formal and many are mandated and overseen by OSHA and other government bodies, so in this case, formal education is a must and almost every chemotherapy facility that employs pharmacy techs will insist on certification in order for you to be considered for a job.

This means that before you can take a specialized certification in oncology, you will need to pass a formal pharmacy tech certification - the PTCE or the ExCPT, depending upon which state you intend to work in - and be able to demonstrate having had practical experience, either within a formal classroom setting or in a 'real' working environment, in pharmacy tech basics.

Also read: Which is the best certification exam: PTCE (PTCB) or ExCPT (NHA)?

If you can meet these criteria, you can formally apply to take the Chemo/Hazardous Drug Certification that is offered by the National Pharmacy Technician Association

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All About the Chemo/Hazardous Drug Certification

Should you decide to take the Chemo/Hazardous Drug Certification it is a 9 module home study course. A candidate must score at least 70% on the tests given at the end of each module and then also score the same on a comprehensive final written exam.

There is one more special requirement that must be completed once the written portion of the certification process is complete. In order to obtain the certification candidates must spend a day at the NPTA Training Institute in Houston, Texas.

This day is spent demonstrating that you can perform the techniques you have been learning about and that you understand the gravity and importance of maintaining proper technique at all times.

Final Word

Becoming an oncology pharmacy tech is not always an easy process, and it calls for time, study and dedication. For those who commit to that however working in the field can not only prove lucrative and offer extra career growth opportunities but can also be a very satisfying field to enter.

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