30 Essential Skills Needed to Be a Pharmacist

Learn which top skills are needed to become a pharmacist, including technical abilities, key characteristics as well as character qualities.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Illustration of a male pharmacist behind a counter attending to a female customer

Pharmacists are an important cog in the healthcare machine. Following the diagnosis of certain ailments or conditions, patients will be prescribed medication that is the responsibility of a pharmacist to check, prepare and dispense. But it’s not as simple as picking something up off a shelf and handing it out — pharmacists require a wide range of skills to be effective in their role.

So, which of these skills are the most important to be a pharmacist?

We’ve compiled a handy checklist to help you find out.

1. Accuracy

When it comes to the pharmaceutical industry, attention to detail is literally a matter of life and death — and there is no room for error. Although human beings naturally make mistakes, the consequences don’t lie only with the pharmacist — the effects on a diabetes patient given the wrong type of insulin, for example, could be absolutely catastrophic. Whether it’s reading the doctor’s abysmal handwriting, entering the information into the computer system or measuring ingredients correctly, accuracy is essential.

2. Integrity

Sometimes doctors forget to check for drug interactions; sometimes the nurses who submit electronic prescriptions make typos. Pharmacists are like proofreaders, and if something doesn’t make sense, or a mistake has been made, then they have to have the confidence and the integrity to stand up and ask questions.

3. Scientific aptitude

It may sound obvious, but people often underestimate how much pharmacists rely on practical science. Pharmacists need to have an in-depth knowledge — and enthusiasm — for chemistry and biology; it’s important to be able to easily assimilate new and complex information when it becomes available.

4. Mathematics

From something as simple as calculating how many pills a patient needs to working out more complex variable dosages, numerical skills are essential. Indeed, as a pharmacist, you need to be able to make accurate pharmaceutical calculations and provide the correct dosages, especially when you’re required to compound medications and prepare special solutions.

5. Interpersonal skills

Pharmacists often have to juggle between doctors who don’t like to be questioned and frustrated patients who are upset at having to wait for their prescriptions; developing the interpersonal skills to deal with this requires patience, diplomacy and a great sense of humor. Being able to soothe bruised egos and hurt feelings are an essential part of making the process run smoothly.

6. Communication

This is one of the key parts of a pharmacist’s job. It’s essential that they can communicate clearly to the patient how and when they should take their medication, and then verify their understanding. It can also be challenging to explain why a patient is receiving a certain medication, as well as explaining any side effects.

7. Advocacy

In the US especially, pharmacists can find themselves battling with insurance companies all too often, particularly when they’re hesitant to cover the medication that a patient needs. As registered professionals, they need to be able to advocate on their patients’ behalf when obstacles arise rather than just send them away empty-handed.

8. Management

This is an aspect of the job that can often be overlooked. Depending on the place of employment and the structure in place, pharmacists may be responsible for supervising technicians and dispensers (including all the people management issues that this entails), as well as managing budgets, monitoring inventories and keeping accountable records.

9. Multitasking

Not only are pharmacists busy performing tasks that can potentially have life-or-death ramifications, but they’re also answering calls, dealing with other patients and ensuring strict regulatory protocols are being followed. This means being able to not only multitask, but multitask with 100% accuracy!

10. Diplomacy

At one time or another, every pharmacist will encounter a patient who is trying to get a restricted substance without a prescription, on an expired prescription or too early. Some of these patients — especially those with addictive characteristics — can become extremely belligerent and intimidating.

Pharmacists have to be able to resolve these situations in everyone’s best interests. This requires diplomacy, good judgement and the ability to stay calm, as well as taking into account the safety of the patient, staff and other customers.

11. Prioritization

Pharmacists have to be able to assess situations and adjust on the fly. For example, whose prescription do you fill first: the person who’s been waiting for 10 minutes or the terrified mother who just came in with a sick newborn and two crying toddlers? Trying to balance empathy with fairness when making a judgement call such as this can be difficult, but it’s necessary when attempting to prioritize tasks.

12. Analytical skills

Despite being experts in how drugs interact with the body and with each other, it’s impossible to know everything. Pharmacists have to approach their work with an analytical mind and refer to the correct sources when necessary, as well as taking a logical and accountable approach to any decisions they make regarding a patient’s medical treatment.

13. Counseling

Despite the fast-paced nature of the job, pharmacists are required to provide a certain level of patient counseling. This means taking the time to explain a particular drug therapy to a patient and discuss the wider effects it may have on their life. For example, if a patient frequently forgets to take certain pills, a pharmacist should try to dig deeper into why this is (it could be more than simple forgetfulness) and offer a solution that will benefit the patient.

14. Computer skills

Nearly all dispensary systems are digital now, as well as inventories, patient databases and consultation programs. As a result, pharmacists need to be comfortable working with computers and able to pick things up quickly.

15. Financial acumen

As previously touched upon, pharmacists may be responsible for budgets and ordering new stock, as well as controlling other expenses, such as salaries. This requires a strong organizational ability, as well as some basic working knowledge of finance, bookkeeping and taxation principles.

16. Mentoring

Pharmacists have to be able to instruct and pass on their knowledge and experience to junior pharmacists starting out, as well as pharmacy technicians. In the UK, this is a requisite, as potential pharmacists are required to undergo 52 weeks of competency-based mentoring prior to taking their registration exam.

17. Conscientiousness

As with other medical professions, pharmacists are expected to adhere to clear ethical and moral guidelines, regardless of their personal beliefs. A Wisconsin pharmacist was struck off in 2007 for refusing to fulfill an emergency contraception prescription, claiming he “did not want to commit a sin”. Like doctors, pharmacists must put the professional needs of their patient before their own personal feelings.

18. Ethics

Pharmacists provide prescriptions to patients living with different medical conditions and who are undergoing various treatments. It’s crucial, then, that they act ethically and discreetly by respecting private patient information. This is especially important if you live in a close-knit community where most people are acquainted with each other; under no circumstances should pharmacists disclose details of someone’s conditions — instead, they should uphold their right to privacy.

19. Physical stamina

Most pharmacists spend most of their shift standing, getting prescriptions and restocking supplies. Therefore, it’s essential that they have the physical stamina to carry out their duties without exerting themselves.

20. Active listening

As a pharmacist, you need to be attentive to your patients. To achieve this, you need to be a good listener, focused on your patients and ready to provide them with the necessary treatment to aid their conditions. Having a dismissive attitude and not listening carefully to what your patients are saying will not only give you a bad rap, but could also potentially be dangerous, as your lack of active listening could mean missing important clues that would point to the right prescription.

21. Cultural awareness

Like all healthcare professionals, pharmacists will come into contact with people from diverse backgrounds, holding different values and beliefs to their own. Cultural competence is, therefore, needed in order to personalize healthcare services to the individual needs of patients.

For example, when looking out for non-verbal cues, healthcare professionals must keep in mind how much these vary between cultures.

22. Empathy

Empathy is a soft skill that can enhance interpersonal relationships in any work setting. A pharmacist can use this skill to both improve communication with colleagues and optimize the service given to patients. A healthcare professional who understands a patient’s feelings as though they were her own is able to build trust and nourish high-quality interactions.

23. Patience

Pharmacists have to deal with a lot of medication complexity — that’s when a single patient receives different medications at once. This is more common in the elderly, who are likelier to experience chronic conditions than younger adults.

Ensuring the safety of polypharmacy requires patience. So does explaining to patients how and when to take their various medications.

24. Stress management

Professionals working in fast-paced work environments need to come up with effective stress management strategies or risk burning out. When a person spends their day filling prescriptions and dealing with distraught patients, emotional exhaustion can quickly spike. In the long-term, stress can compromise your health and work performance, which in turn increases the likelihood of errors being made at work.

25. Conflict resolution

The high stress that comes with any customer-facing position can provide the perfect conditions for conflict. Throw in health-related concerns from the patient’s side and the ground for conflict becomes more fertile.

During a misunderstanding, excellent communication skills are needed to quickly rectify the situation. Staying calm under pressure, listening carefully, and being a good collaborator in reaching solutions are also needed.

26. Adaptability

The role of the pharmacist is changing, according to The Pharmaceutical Journal. Whereas before it revolved around expertise of medicinal products, now it’s more centered on caregiving. With constant advancements in technology and role extensions that come with social changes, pharmacists must be flexible enough to learn new approaches and unlearn old ones.

27. Self-control

Motivation, consistency, accountability, and emotional regulation all rely on having a high degree of self-control. In caregiving professions, where a steady performance is a prerequisite for safeguarding patients’ health, being disciplined is vital.

28. Intentional learning

Learning is, in fact, considered a skill itself. That’s because it can be developed and practiced intentionally, much like any other skill.

In a world that’s constantly evolving, pharmacists must stay up to date with the latest discoveries and advancements to do a great job. Those eager to keep acquiring new knowledge throughout their career make a great fit for this role.

29. Critical thinking

Pharmacists must have the ability to work backwards from a set of symptoms to arrive at a suitable treatment. They must also be able to analyze the efficacy and compatibility of different medications.

In addition, pharmacists must be able to think for themselves — and also think about what they think for themselves. This is known as metacognition, or questioning one’s own beliefs and biases to provide the best possible service to patients.

30. Problem solving

As every patient’s situation is unique, comprising factors like age, lifestyle and genetics, pharmacists must be able to offer solutions that take every aspect of health into account. On top of that, pharmacists must be able to quickly deal with things like billing problems, last-minute shift changes, customer complaints, and any devices or equipment that malfunction.

Final thoughts

As you can see, pharmacists have a fast-paced, highly technical job that can be very demanding, and there’s absolutely no room for error. But it can be highly rewarding for people who possess the personality traits and abilities on this list.

Do you think you’ve got what it takes to become a pharmacist? Can you think of any other skills needed to be a pharmacist? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on December 1, 2017. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.