Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic
Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic

Pharmacy Technician Program - necessity inspires innovation

Multi-agency collaboration helps prevent shortage of qualified pharmacy technicians in Saskatchewan hospitals.

With a shortage of pharmacy technicians in Saskatchewan, almost all of the 2020 graduating class in Sask Polytech’s Pharmacy Technician diploma program had jobs lined up early in the new year. Pharmacy techs help pharmacists prepare and deliver prescription medicines. Hospitals and community pharmacies around the province were counting on these new grads to help fill positions.

And then came COVID-19.

“COVID-19 brought in-person education to an abrupt halt in mid-March,” says Sue Mack-Klinger, program head of the Pharmacy Technician program. “At that point, our graduating class still had one-third of in-person classes, hands-on labs and two months of practicums to complete.”

When Sask Polytech campuses closed at noon on March 17, instructors collected their computers, books, learning resources, chairs, plants and other paraphernalia so they could set up home offices. “Campus closed on Tuesday with the expectation that courses would start online the following Monday. So, in less than four working days, program instructors had to start delivering their courses online ... and we did,” Mack-Klinger says.

The biggest challenge in moving to online program delivery is that Pharmacy Technician, like most Sask Polytech programs, emphasizes hands-on applied learning. In-person labs are a critical part of the learning process. For second-year students, who were just weeks away from graduating, there was the added challenge of fitting the remaining five-week program of learning into a two-week pandemic plan, with the understanding that the practicums would reinforce their learning.

A detailed plan was developed that met program completion requirements, while following public health directions for distancing and prevention of viral transmission during practical labs. The plan was reviewed by stakeholders, including Sask Polytech leadership, Saskatchewan Health Authority, the provincial government, Canadian Council for Accreditation for Pharmacy Programs and Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy Professionals.

“It was an incredible effort all around,” Mack-Klinger says. “The plan ensured all rigour would be preserved and all competencies would be assessed. Public policies would be adhered to, meeting a competency that pharmacy professionals must abide.”

While students weren’t directly involved in the planning, Mack-Klinger says they were full participants in the process. “All our students had to self-isolate during this time. They still had to study and continue online classes. They also agreed to take back-to-back labs and assessments, which meant writing one or two exams a day. They knew how hard we were working for them, and they trusted us,” she says.

Mack-Klinger also points out the role played by hospital and community pharmacy sites, which accepted both first year and second year practicum students. “These preceptors are true professionals who have taken in our students despite dealing with extra workloads of their own due to the pandemic.”

In the end, collaboration was the lynchpin that allowed all of this to happen. “Every stakeholder helped ensure our students were able to complete their full programs, with only a few weeks delay,” Mack-Klinger says proudly.

Learn more about Sask Polytech’s Pharmacy Technician program.