Although their work is largely unseen by patients, pharmacy technicians are vital to our health, says Kate Hilpern

When the arthritis drug Vioxx was swiftly recalled by its manufacturers in 2004 over fears that it could have been linked to thousands of heart problems, pharmacy technicians like Corinne Hunt had rarely been busier. "My team had to be on the ball in giving guidance to GP practices about how to deal with patients because people had read about it in the news and were scared," she recalls. "We not only had to guide them about what to say to these patients, but also what to suggest as an alternative drug."

With around 400,000 patients across the UK having been prescribed the drug at that time, Hunt had her work cut out. But in common with most pharmacy technicians, she gets enormous job satisfaction in working with such challenges.

Although pharmacy technicians in the NHS work mainly in hospital and community pharmacy, a growing number of opportunities exist in other areas like Primary Care Trusts (PCTs). It is in this lesser known area where Hunt is employed. "As a PCT technician, I work in what is called the Medicines Management Team, which is made up of a combination of pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. We each work in a number of GP surgeries," explains Hunt, who works for Central Cheshire PCT.

Hunt's workload consists of working across five GP surgeries, spending half a day to a full day in each, where her role is to advise the GPs, their staff and sometimes patients about how to best manage their medicines. "Part of the aim is to utilise the practice's prescribing budget more cost effectively. So if I see that a patient is taking two 40mg tablets, and there is a cheaper 80mg tablet, I will inform the GP. It's simple, but very effective. You can save literally thousands of pounds making savings like that."

Other aims include responding to media scares, as in the case of Vioxx, and ensuring that the right people get the right medicines. "For instance, I've just been doing a review on diabetic patients in this particular surgery that I'm in today. I audited all of the patients who are taking a specific medicine and I'm making sure that they're not taking insulin alongside it because that would be dangerous. I'm also making sure they are not prescribed this medicine if they have any previous diagnoses of heart failure and I'm involved in checking the results of blood tests to see if there are any discrepancies in their liver function - again, that could be problematic."

Another area of her work is called risk management. Hunt explains, "It generally involves doing searches within the GP surgery of patients on drugs that need specific monitoring. I then make sure the monitoring is done so that no patients slip through the net."

An example of a recent piece of work in this area was on Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). "It's a lung problem that can affect people who have smoked heavily, worked in mines, or been around asbestos," she says. "What happens with these patients is that they are often taken into hospital because they literally can't breathe. So what we as pharmacy technicians do is help GPs to introduce strategies that reduce the frequency and impact of these hospital visits by dealing with the problems before they get to this stage."

Hunt's role also involves making sure that everyone involved in dispensing medicines is running a tight ship. "For instance, we encourage GPs' surgeries to have a specific prescribing team within the practice that specialise in repeat prescriptions. Because medicines are much more potent than even just 10 years ago, managing repeat prescriptions shouldn't just be a matter of churning them out, but knowing what to look for to make sure the patient is getting the best possible care. In those cases, we get involved in training up teams."

She adds that her work doesn't stop in the GP's surgery. "One project I've been working on recently is about elderly people in care homes and making sure that they are prescribed extra calcium and vitamin D. If they don't have an adequate intake of these drugs, and they have a fall, they're much more likely to get a fracture."

Hunt's role has only been in existence for about five years, but is an up-and-coming area of primary care work. "It's very rewarding to have the variety of working in different GPs' surgeries, not to mention the different outcomes of my work like efficiency and seeing patients get their needs met in a more effective way," she says. "No two surgeries are the same, and I enjoy adapting my work to suit their environment. I also like working with so many different people."

There are occasions when Hunt has contact with patients, too. "If they're having problems with the synchronisation of their medication, it is sometimes more appropriate for me to see them than a GP," she explains. There are downsides, as in any job, she admits. "Sometimes you feel out on a limb, especially if the surgery shuts you away in a room with a computer. But it doesn't happen very often and the Medicines Management Team is always there to support you."

Hunt, who is 50 years old, started her pharmacy career 35 years ago doing a Saturday job in Boots. "I qualified as a dispenser, but then I went off to have children. When I came back to work, I moved to a GP's surgery, where I worked my way up to senior dispenser. Having done that for 13 years, I decided to get qualified to become a pharmacy technician."

Hunt believes you need excellent communication and teamwork skills to be a pharmacy technician for a PCT. "You work with so many different types of people - doctors, practice staff, patients and your team. You also need to be IT-literate and confident doing presentations."

In addition, you'll need an interest in science and medicine, as well as a good level of scientific and numerical ability, and a methodical and accurate approach to practical tasks. A high level of concentration is also required, Hunt advises, alongside good administrative skills for record keeping.