Dispensing wisdom one bean at a time
Born in Sri Lanka roiled by civil war, young Mayuri Suriyakumar was removed from the strife that threatened her island homeland before she was aware of its dangers. Her uncle, living in Canada, pleaded for the family to come join him on the other side of the globe.
“My parents realized it would be difficult to properly educate their two girls when there was so much political unrest,” Suriyakumar says. The family of four landed in Toronto in 1990 and settled in Scarborough. She started school and soon developed an affinity for the health sciences. She wanted to be a doctor from an early age.
“I love the health professions – but I applied for computer science when it came time to enrol in university as it was what my family and friends recommended because there were a lot of job opportunities at the time,” Suriyakumar recalls. “I knew I wouldn’t be happy with my choice.”
Suriyakumar cancelled her application and returned to Wexford Collegiate to complete an additional credit in biology, recognizing that she needed some strong sciences if she was going to pursue health care. She studied and worked part-time in her additional year of high school, graduating in 2006. Suriyakumar then applied to university for biological science.
“The commute was far by bus, but the four years passed quickly. It was worth it. My degree prepared me for working in the pharmaceutical industry and teaching, but I realized I didn’t want to go into research or academics just yet.”
It was while Suriyakumar was working at a retail pharmacy as a cashier that she learned about Centennial College’s Pharmacy Technician program from the other staff. The two-year program trains pharmacy technicians to prepare, dispense and compound medications. They also manage inventory, interact with patients and other health care providers, and assist in the provision of pharmaceutical care.
Pharmacy technicians work hand in hand with pharmacists – a profession that enjoys high visibility, but the competition for entry into pharmacy school is extremely high.
For Suriyakumar, Centennial’s program sounded like the perfect complement to her university studies. She welcomed the opportunity to augment her theoretical knowledge with some hands-on practical studies.
“What I learned at Centennial is that you have to work with accuracy. My work is graded on accuracy, which is very important in the industry. People’s lives are dependent on dispensing drugs properly.”
The first year in the program concentrated on the retail pharmacy environment, the one most people are most familiar with. In the college’s new pharmacy labs at Morningside Campus, the same computers, software and lab equipment are used to replicate a professional pharmacy. Suriyakumar motions to the racks of drug bottles on the shelves.
“They’re filled with placebos, but sometimes we run out and the professor goes to the grocery store to buy beans in place of pills. We sometimes treat beans like expensive medicines.” As part of the first year experience, students spend 40 hours working in a retail pharmacy to get a sense of the responsibilities.
The second year of the program focuses on institutional pharmacies, such as those found behind the scenes in hospitals. There, pharmacy technicians work to supply unit doses to in-patient clients, based on the pharmacist’s order entries. Students spend seven weeks in a large hospital learning the intricacies of fulfilling pharmacy orders for ill patients.
“Centennial is very well known in the industry and students are welcomed in the workplace,” says Suriyakumar, who joined two other students in a placement at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto. She enjoyed working side by side with other health care professionals and being treated as an essential member of the hospital team.
By 2015, Ontario will require all pharmacy technicians to be registered by certificate due to new responsibilities that accrue to the profession (pharmacists also gain new responsibilities, including dispensing flu shots). Suriyakumar has heard anecdotally that some older technicians may retire rather than follow the certification process, which may result in more pharmacy jobs opening up in the near future.
“This is the perfect time to become a pharmacy technician. The profession is changing, technicians are being given more responsibilities, and there will be new job opportunities,” she says. Centennial’s program teaches all the new requirements, which means Suriyakumar and her colleagues will be job-ready.
Because Centennial’s Pharmacy Technician program has been awarded full accreditation by the Canadian Council for Accreditation of Pharmacy Programs, graduates must be registered with the Ontario College of Pharmacists (OCP) to practice as pharmacy technicians in the province. Suriyakumar will be required to pass the PEBC Qualifying Examination for Pharmacy Technicians, Part I – MCQ and Part II – OSPE – and then pass the OCP Jurisprudence Examination for Pharmacy Technicians.
It’s a considerable challenge, but one that Suriyakumar is primed to complete with flying colours. She knows the pharmacy technician title doesn’t enjoy the prestige of the pharmacist profession, but she’s quick to correct anyone who asks about it.
“People think all we do is count pills. But we do a whole lot more: We are the second pair of eyes on all prescriptions to catch mistakes, we interact with insurance companies and we call patients. What we don’t do, however, is consult with the patient. Only the pharmacist can do a consultation with the customer regarding their prescriptions.”
Suriyakumar is excited by her job prospects and hopes to return to a busy hospital setting after she graduates. She loves the appeal of being part of a large institutional health care team, helping patients get better.
“I have no regrets attending university first, then coming to college to complete my practical training. Lots of university graduates are doing the same. Who knows? I may return to teach here someday!”
For more information about Centennial’s Health Studies programs, visit: www.centennialcollege.ca/healthstudies