Intense training prepares military pharmacy technicians for the field

METC is the largest health care training campus in the world

Service members from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard who graduate from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Pharmacy Technician Training program need to be ready for anything the moment they step foot outside the Medical Education and Training Campus (METC) at the Joint Base San Antonio–Fort Sam Houston, TX.

Graduates ready for duty

“These young graduates don’t know what they may encounter on a deployment or in a combat zone,” said Leslie G. Walthall, PharmD, LTC, MS, Program Director and Army Service Lead for the DoD Pharmacy Technician Training Program. “Our Navy pharmacy technicians could be assigned to an aircraft carrier right out of the school house. That’s why we train them at a much higher level than civilian training programs in order to prepare them for possible independent duty.”

As the largest health care training campus in the world, the METC offers nearly 50 academic programs in various medical specialties to U.S. service members. The Pharmacy Technician Training program offers courses in pharmacy administration, pharmacy supply, compounding, outpatient and inpatient pharmacy operations, human anatomy and physiology, pharmacotherapeutics, and more.

Concentrated training

The program’s staff includes about 35 instructors and is accredited by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists. “After graduation, students leave with 35 college credit hours,” Walthall said in an interview with Pharmacy Today.

According to instructor Dan Dulak, CPhT, the technician program averages about 80 students per class, with three class iterations held simultaneously.  “The days are long with our students waking up at 4:30 am and they don’t get back to their barracks until 6:30 pm,” said Dulak, who has trained more than 8,000 pharmacy technicians during his 14-year career as an instructor. “They eat dinner, have about 2 hours of study time, and then it’s lights [off], and they do the whole thing again the next day.”

Training takes place for 8 hours a day, with a 1-hour break for lunch during the 12-week program. “We use active medications to simulate a real live training environment,” said Dulak. “That gives us the ability to train technicians for any kind of pharmacy situation, ensuring they are trained and ready to do their job right off the bat.”

After the initial 12 weeks, Air Force and Coast Guard students move on to a 4-week clinical experiential rotation. Army and Navy students stay at the campus for an additional 4 weeks of advanced didactic training. Upon completion of their didactic training, Army and Navy students complete their 4 weeks of clinical experiential training at military, veteran’s administration, and civilian hospitals in San Antonio.

The intensive training also includes learning about automation and more than 80 hours of sterile products training. “What most schools do in 2 years, we can do in less than 22 weeks,” Dulak told Today.

After graduation, the technicians are encouraged to become nationally certified pharmacy technicians by taking the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PCTE). “Our technician pass rate on the PTCE exceeds the civilian national average by 18.2 percentage points,” said Walthall.

Young soldiers

Most of the students entering the program are around 18 or 19 years old. “Some of these kids have just graduated from high school and want to serve their country and earn a military occupational skill,” said MSG David Cardenas, an instructor at the METC and the Ancillary Department Senior Enlisted Advisor. “At METC, we take their enthusiasm, and we teach and mentor them to be the best they can be.”

Less than 1% of Americans are serving their country right now, noted Walthall. “These young students are willing to put their life on the line to serve others and that says a lot about them,” she added.

Multiservice cultural considerations

In addition to academic training, students are required to maintain their individual service customs by performing physical training every morning and other duties that are relevant to their branch of the military.

“During the day, our students experience a multiservice training environment, and at the end of the day, they go back to their respective service components, so they can retain their service-specific traditions to prepare them for their next duty assignment,” said Walthall.

Instructors Walthall, Dulak, and Cardenas all expressed a feeling of incredible satisfaction when it comes to training pharmacy technicians for the armed services. “These students want to be here more than anything,” said Walthall. “Training America’s brave men and women who are serving in uniform is a true honor.”