Pharmacist vs. Doctor: What's the Difference?
The medical field includes various career roles, including pharmacists and doctors. While they have much in common, pharmacists and doctors are distinct professions. If you're considering a career in medicine, it can be beneficial to understand what makes the career fields different.
In this article, we discuss the differences between pharmacists and doctors to help you determine which career path is right for you.
What is a pharmacist vs. a doctor?
Pharmacists commonly work in drugstores and retail environments where they fill and dispense prescription medications, administer vaccines, counsel patients and address other customer needs. Pharmacists review prescriptions for accuracy and appropriateness. Some pharmacists work in hospitals where responsibilities can include order verification in the central pharmacy or attending patient rounds with doctors, nurses and other members of the medical team.
In recent years, though, pharmacists have seen their responsibilities expand beyond dispensing to include diagnosing and treating patients. These are clinical pharmacists, and they usually work under a doctor, depending on the state and health system they work in.
Between the two professions, doctors have traditionally been the provider responsible for diagnosing and treating patients. They review symptoms patients may have, administer exams, order further tests, write prescriptions and make referrals to specialists if necessary. Doctors, also known as physicians, can work as general practitioners or specialize in a field of medicine such as surgery or cardiology.
Related: Learn About Being a Pharmacist
Differences between pharmacists and doctors
Pharmacists and doctors both work in the medical field to provide safe and effective treatments. However, there are several key differences between the two roles, including:
Education and training
5-8 years of education: Undergraduate studies (at least 2 years) plus Doctor of Pharmacy degree (3-4 years). Residency or fellowship (1-2 years) is optional.
11-16 years of education: Undergraduate studies (4 years) plus Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (4 years). Residency (3-7 years) is required.
North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX), state license, optional licenses and board certifications
United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), state medical license, board certifications
Study and work with medications and preventative therapies to ensure patients receive the most suitable and effective care
Work directly with patients to evaluate, diagnose and treat disease, illness and injury
Hospitals, drug stores and pharmacies. Often work during daylight hours.
Hospitals, private practices, surgery centers, health care facilities. Often work longer hours
Expertise relates to the study, use and improvement of pharmaceuticals
Expertise relates to the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of disease
Average U.S. salary
Education and training
The required education and training for pharmacists and doctors differ. Pharmacists can expect five to eight years of education before obtaining their Doctor of Pharmacy (Pharm.D.) degree. Undergraduate requirements depend on admission criteria for each pharmacy school, but schools generally require at least two years of undergraduate study. After acceptance into a pharmacy school, Pharm.D. candidates can expect to spend three to four more years in graduate studies. Some schools offer the option of completing undergraduate and graduate studies within one program.
After obtaining a Pharm.D., pharmacists can continue their education and develop new skills by completing a residency or fellowship. Pharmacy residencies usually last one to two years and provide specialized training that is more clinical in nature (acute care, ambulatory care, emergency medicine, pediatrics, etc.). Pharmacists can also complete a management-focused residency or prepare for a career in the industry by completing a fellowship.
The education to become a doctor takes longer, though, with some physicians requiring 11-plus years of education and training. Becoming a physician generally requires four years of undergraduate studies, four years of graduate studies and three or more years of residency. Residencies are optional for pharmacists but required for doctors.
After completing a residency, physicians can further specialize by completing an optional fellowship. Examples include gastroenterology, orthopedic surgery and cardiology. Physicians can expect to complete their education and training in 11 to 16 years.
Related: The 9 Levels of Doctors and Their Differences
To apply for your pharmacist license, you need to take and pass the North American Pharmacist Licensure Examination (NAPLEX). You will then apply for licensure through the state you work in. Optional licenses include a license to administer injectables–such as vaccines–and board certification in various specialties.
Doctors, though, must earn several licenses to meet practice standards. During medical school, students often complete the first two parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and obtain licensure after completing the third part during residency. Most physicians receive board certifications in their specialties, along with state licensure to practice in their field.
One of the most significant differences between the two medical professions is the job focus. Physicians work directly with patients to evaluate, diagnose and treat disease, illness and injury. They evaluate patients' symptoms and consult with medical teams to develop the most effective forms of treatment, including prescription medications. Depending on their medical specialization, doctors may also perform surgery.
In contrast, pharmacists study and work with medications and preventative therapies to ensure patients receive the most suitable and effective care. This includes screening for drug interactions and checking dosing for appropriateness. Some pharmacists may even evaluate and treat patients under a collaborative practice agreement. This allows pharmacists to address patient concerns independently and ensure treatment regimens reflect current standards of care.
Related: What Does a Clinical Pharmacist Do? (With Job Description)
Pharmacists and doctors may both work in hospitals. However, pharmacists also find employment in retail drug stores and pharmacies, whereas doctors primarily work in private practices, surgery centers and other health care facilities. Schedules for each profession depend on the workplace, but pharmacists generally work during daylight hours, except for overnight hospital or retail pharmacists. Comparatively, doctors can expect to work longer hours, especially while completing residency or working in a hospital, where 24-hour shifts are common.
Teamwork is essential to working as a pharmacist or doctor. Smaller pharmacy teams will include pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and assistants. In hospitals and doctor offices, pharmacists may also work with doctors, nurses, patient care technicians and other health care professionals. Ideally, everyone involved in the care of a patient will have an open line of communication, so it's common for pharmacists and doctors to be a part of many teams of various sizes.
Related: Medical Job Types and Roles With Descriptions
Pharmacists develop knowledge and skills that allow them to understand how medications affect the human body. They study biochemistry, organic chemistry and human anatomy and physiology, but unlike doctors, pharmacists' expertise relates to the study, use and improvement of pharmaceuticals.
Doctors have expertise in the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of disease. They monitor patients' symptoms and assess health outcomes to provide effective treatment. While some treatments may involve medications, doctors and pharmacists may consult each other to determine if "non-pharm" approaches, such as diet, exercise or therapy, can be considered first.
Related: What Are Clinical Skills? (And How To Improve Them)
The earning potential differs between pharmacists and doctors, too. Pharmacists can earn an average income of $129,793 per year, whereas doctors can earn an average income of $176,385 per year. The income averages can vary for both professions, depending on your location, place of employment, specialization, experience and qualifications. Pharmacists and doctors can also expect a salary while completing residency or fellowship, but the pay will be lower.
For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.
Related: D.O. vs. M.D.: Differences Between Osteopathic and Allopathic Doctors
Similarities between pharmacists and doctors
Although pharmacists and doctors are distinct professions, they share similarities in several areas, including:
Contribution to research
Both pharmacists and doctors may pursue research in their fields of interest. Contributing to research helps both medical and pharmaceutical practices improve through advances in medicine and health care development.
Pharmacists who contribute to research may study and experiment with pharmaceutical therapies, new medicines and innovative solutions to public health changes. Physicians' research can span various fields, evaluation methods, patient care techniques and strategies for improving health outcomes for the public.
Related: 10 Careers You Can Pursue in Medical Research
Patient care and guidance
Pharmacists are the most accessible health care professionals, so they're often the first stop for patients needing advice. A pharmacist's place of employment will dictate the opportunity for patient interaction, but all pharmacists can answer questions about medications, side effects and dosages and provide guidance on over-the-counter (OTC) medicines.
Doctors also provide guidance and patient care, but most physicians require appointments to see patients. Additionally, both pharmacists and doctors maintain patient confidentiality to give patients a safe and secure environment to learn about and care for their health.
Related: Learn About Being a Patient Advocate (Plus Duties and Skills)
Medical knowledge and expertise
Both professionals also share similar expertise in medical applications. During pharmacists' education and training, they develop chemistry, physiology and anatomy skills. Doctors also study these subjects during their training, and both professionals apply their knowledge of medical evaluation and observation. Pharmacists and doctors also share expertise in directing others in performing specialized tasks.
For instance, pharmacists rely on their knowledge of pharmaceuticals to train and advise pharmacy technicians when mixing and filling prescriptions. Doctors rely on their specialized knowledge to direct and advise medical teams when working with patients.
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