Releasing Prescriptions when the Pharmacist is on a Break


It is well known that taking breaks during the work-day will decrease the likelihood of fatigue and the potential for medication errors. It is important that all pharmacy professionals take breaks for these reasons. Even when workloads are higher, if we support each other and work together in meeting our patients’ needs, breaks are possible!

Did you read the recent news article from the Alberta College of Pharmacists outlining the rules on breaks for pharmacists? The article clarified that a pharmacist may be temporarily absent from the pharmacy in order to take a break. Did you know that pharmacy technicians are able to continue to practice, including releasing medications to patients, during a pharmacist’s absence provided certain conditions are met?

The Pharmacy and Drug Act outlines expectations for pharmacists when they are temporarily absent from the pharmacy. This includes ensuring that restricted activities performed in their absence are only performed by those authorized to perform them. Dispensing a medication pursuant to a prescription is an example of a restricted activity that both pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have a role in. The dispensing process includes an evaluation of the prescription for therapy appropriateness, assessment of the prescription’s currency, filling the prescription correctly in appropriate packaging, properly labeling the final product and releasing the medication to the patient. The Standards of Practice for Pharmacists and Pharmacy Technicians further outline the specific procedures that must be followed when dispensing prescriptions.

Only pharmacists may determine the therapeutic appropriateness of the prescription and pharmacy technicians are held accountable to ensuring that this has been completed for every prescription that the pharmacy technician releases. But this assessment of appropriateness does not have to be completed as the last step in the dispensing process. In fact, having a pharmacist evaluate a prescription in this manner prior to the remainder of the dispensing steps occurring can improve productivity and efficiency within the process.

Prior to releasing a medication to a patient the pharmacy technician must also ensure that the patient has been provided information by the pharmacist about how to use the medication for the intended drug therapy; this is often referred to as counseling. Counseling by the pharmacist must occur every time a medication is dispensed to a patient for the first time, if the patient requests information or asks questions that requires the pharmacist’s therapeutic knowledge, and/or the pharmacist or pharmacy technician believes the patient would benefit from a dialogue with the pharmacist.

Let’s say the pharmacist has assessed a medication refill request for a patient and then leaves the pharmacy to get lunch. The pharmacy technician may complete the filling process in the pharmacist’s absence ensuring all steps of the process are accurately performed. The patient then returns to pick up her refill medication before the pharmacist returns from lunch. The pharmacy technician confirms the identity of the patient and medication being dispensed and asks the patient if she would like to speak to the pharmacist. If the patient does not require a dialogue with the pharmacist and the pharmacy technician, in her professional opinion, sees no reason to refer the patient to the pharmacist she may release the medication to the patient before the pharmacist returns from his break. But let’s say the patient does have a question about a side effect she is experiencing – in this case it would be appropriate for the pharmacy technician not to release the prescription to the patient until she has had the opportunity to speak to the pharmacist.

Despite these allowances it is important that pharmacy technicians ensure that any activities they undertake, either when the pharmacist is present or when they are absent from the pharmacy, are completed with the safety of patients in mind. Pharmacy technicians must ensure they use their professional judgment and assess each patient and prescription dispensing situation to determine when the release of a prescription should be delayed until the pharmacist is available for further review or to speak with the patient.

We’ve talked about the role of the pharmacy technician and pharmacist in this situation but what about pharmacy assistants and other unregulated pharmacy support personnel? Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians must ensure that all procedures are met when supervising unregulated pharmacy staff. Therefore, a pharmacy assistant may not release a prescription to a patient in the absence of pharmacist or pharmacy technician directly supervising the activities they are performing.

Releasing a prescription to a patient is only one activity that a pharmacy technician may perform in a pharmacist’s absence. The Scope of Practice for Alberta Pharmacy Technicians document is available to help understand the activities that may be part of the pharmacy technician’s role. This resource is available through the Practice Resources section of the Members Only section of the website. Do you have questions about other activities and/or the pharmacy technician’s scope of practice? Share them in the comments below or contact us at

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