Pharmacist remains enthusiastic about career

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, March 8, 2009

When Bob Steffl chose pharmacy as a career path, he saw it as a good financial decision, a career that would provide a more stable income than music or math, his other loves. Over time, however, he’s discovered how much he enjoys the kind of work he does at Sterling Drug in Albert Lea.

The financial part has worked out just fine, Steffl said, but after eight years at Sterling, and several years before that working as a pharmacist at ShopKo in Austin, it is the interactions with patients that keep him enthusiastic about his choice.

“When you make a recommendation and they come back to tell you how it worked, it’s wonderful,” he said.

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He also enjoys the hard work his schedule requires. “I grew up in a hard-working home, a farm family, and the work ethic is still there,” he said.

Interacting with patients eventually led him to pursue a program called Medication Therapy Management (MTM), a new facet to pharmaceutical work. In an MTM situation, which only a few insurers currently recognize, a pharmacist sits down with patients and evaluates all of the care involving medications, paying attention to side effects and duplication of therapies, working with physicians to make sure the patient receives the optimal treatments. The setup at Sterling doesn’t allow for this sort of service at the moment, but Steffl is talking to his supervisors and has hopes for the future.

The path to the pharmacy counter started back in Sleepy Eye, when Steffl’s high school chemistry teacher told him about the field and recommended that he consider pursuing it. He hadn’t really thought about it before that, and although he also thought about being a math teacher and loved music and being in the band, he took her words to heart. It helped that his older sister was also exploring pharmacy as a possible career. When he enrolled at South Dakota State in Brookings, he started as a pharmacy major and never looked back.

Although his work is rewarding, it also brings some challenges.

“The biggest challenge is working with insurance companies to satisfy their requirements,” Steffl said. He finds he spends a lot of his time checking with the steadily narrowing requirements laid out by both private insurers and public agencies, negotiating and looking for flexibility so patients get the medications they need.

The growing use of bulk, mail-order pharmacies also troubles Steffl. Along with the potential loss of quality control, as medications sit in uncontrolled situations, there is the loss of face-to-face service from pharmacists, from whom they can get answers from when they have questions or problems with their medications.

“Something people should know is that they should try to use just one pharmacy for all of their prescriptions,” he said. Steffl thinks it’s important for any pharmacist to be familiar with all of the medications patients are taking. “Then we can do a thorough check for drug interactions and duplicate therapies,” he said. When patients are pushed to use mail-order pharmacies for their maintenance prescriptions, they can run into situations when they need an antibiotic or painkillers, but the pharmacist filling that prescription may not be aware of any other medications, he said.

Pharmacy is a career path chosen by others in Steffl’s immediate family. Along with his sister, his wife, Krista, is an inpatient pharmacist at Albert Lea Medical Center.

Here in Albert Lea, when not working at Sterling, Steffl spends time with his family, playing with and reading to 4-year-old daughter Jenna and 2-year-old son Kyle. In the summer he enjoys boating and water-skiing on area lakes and grilling out, like many families in the community. He’s a lector at St. Theodore Catholic Church and while there’s not much time for music in his life nowadays, he’s still open to the possibility in the future.

There’s also a little bit of adventure in his life away from work. “My wife and I are scuba divers,” Steffl said. In January they traveled to the Cayman Islands for a diving vacation. Along with many of his patients, he’s an avid sports fan, particularly of the Vikings, Twins and the University of Minnesota basketball team.

With a shortage of pharmacists, there are plenty of opportunities for those thinking of pursuing the career, Steffl said. For one, there are multiple options within the field, with some working in retail settings like himself, in hospitals and clinics like his wife or even in research on new medications.

Steffl advises those thinking about this type of work to pay attention in their science classes, starting in high school. Once future pharmacists get to college, the schedule is pretty well laid out for students, with room for a few electives. Given the way his perspective on pharmacy as a career choice has evolved, enjoying working with people is also a necessary component, he said.