Clinical Specialist Careers: Job Description & Salary

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What are the pros and cons of a clinical specialist career? Get real job duties, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a clinical specialist is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Clinical Specialist Career

A clinical specialist is a healthcare professional whose medical services target a specific type of patient or condition. Keep reading to find out if a career as a clinical nurse specialist (CNS) or a clinical pharmacy specialist (CPS) is a good fit for you.

Pros
Annual salaries exceed $60,000 (CNS salary range generally starts at $65,000)**, (2014 mean annual salary for pharmacists was $118,470)*
Employment rate is predicted to increase 19% for nurses and 14% for pharmacists during 2012-2022*
Interesting and rewarding work responsibilities*
Work opportunities are available in a variety of environments that are not geographically limited (opportunities nationwide)*

Cons
Work shifts with non-traditional and/or long hours occur frequently*
Graduate studies and training is required (CNS)**, (CPS***)
Health risks are involved (Injuries and exposure to harmful substances are associated with CNS activities; CPS activities usually require a standing most of the time)*
Some work environments may be stressful (critical care and medical emergency room settings) *

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics*, National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists**, Purdue University***

Career Information

Job Description

Clinical specialists generally have medical and administrative duties. As a clinical nurse specialist, you are an advanced practice registered nurse (RN) who gives direct patient care through activities that may include providing treatments and medications, performing diagnostic tests and offering patient consultations. Your CNS administrative duties may include staff supervision and updating patient records.

If you serve as a clinical pharmacy specialist, you would conduct medication therapy evaluations and help manage patient drug treatments. You would consult other healthcare professionals about drug safety and usage, so administrative functions may include preparing and updating reports and records based on your findings. Specific CPS and CNS duties will vary with your specializations.

Specializations

The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists reports that CNS specialty areas are designated by the patient population or type, such as adults, women or children; by setting, which may include critical care facilities or emergency rooms; by disease, such as cancer (oncology) or diabetes; by the type of care, which may include psychiatric or rehabilitative care; and by the type of problem or symptom, such as pain management or wound care.

According to the Board of Pharmacy Specialties, CPS specialty areas include nuclear pharmacy, which involves the use of radioactive drugs for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes; nutrition support pharmacy, which focuses on caring for those who receive specialized nutrition regiments; oncology pharmacy, which centers on cancer treatment; psychiatric pharmacy, which is geared toward treating patients with mental and/or emotional illness or conditions; pharmacotherapy, which involves direct patient care through drug therapy; and ambulatory care, which focuses on outpatient care treatments.

Salary Info and Job Growth

The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists reports that clinical nurse specialists generally receive an annual salary of $65,000 to over $110,000, depending on the specialty and geographic location. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that pharmacists earned a mean annual salary of approximately $118,470 in 2014. This figure was calculated to reflect wages for all types of pharmacists, including clinical pharmacy specialists. The upper ten percent of the pharmacist salary spectrum had an annual salary of $150,550 or over during 2014, also according to the BLS.

The BLS also reported that job growth for nurses and pharmacists would be average to above-average during the 2012-2022 decade. Registered nurses were expected to see a 19% increase in employment rate during this period while pharmacists were expected to see a 14% increase.

What Are the Career Requirements?

To become a clinical nurse specialist, according to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, you must be a licensed registered nurse who has obtained a master's or doctorate degree in nursing. Graduate programs that concentrate on CNS training are offered at various schools nationwide. To first become a registered nurse, you may obtain a bachelor's or associate's degree. However, CNS training requires graduate studies, and the admission requirement for most graduate schools is a bachelor's degree. Your graduate studies will include classroom instruction and clinical experience. Upon completing your graduate program, you may apply for CNS designation through your state's licensing board.

A clinical pharmacy specialist is a licensed pharmacist with professional training in direct patient care activities. The BLS reports that to become a licensed pharmacist, the PharmD is the current educational requirement. In applying to a PharmD program, you will need at least 2-3 years of undergraduate coursework. However, some programs require that applicants have a bachelor's degree, according the BLS. PharmD programs take 3-4 years to complete. Professional training as a clinical pharmacy specialist is usually provided after graduation through residency programs. However, the Board of Pharmacy Specialties reports that 3-4 years of professional work experience in your specialty field is acceptable in lieu of completing a residency program.

Licensing

Clinical nurse specialists must first obtain a license in their state to be a registered nurse after completing their initial undergraduate nursing training. At this point, you must first pass the National Council Licensure Examination, (NCLEX-RN) to become a registered nurse for general purposes. The next step is after completing your CNS graduate studies, you must obtain another license (also called certification in some states) through your state board to be designated as a clinical nurse specialist. CNS eligibility requirements vary among states, but most requirements include completion of graduate nursing/CNS studies at an accredited institution and a specified amount of clinical experience hours in your specialty field.

Clinical pharmacy specialists must obtain a general license to practice as a pharmacist through their state. The BLS reports that after you complete your PharmD program, you must pass two licensing exams. The first exam pertains to general pharmacy knowledge and practices, whereas the second exam centers on pharmacy laws in the state you'll be working in. After obtaining your general license, you can apply for designation as a clinical pharmacy specialist through the Board of Pharmacy Specialties, once you meet their eligibility requirements. Requirements include completing specific educational training (such as current U.S. candidates having a PharmD) and clinical work experience.

What Employers Are Looking For

In addition looking for applicants with specific degrees, employers are also seeking candidates with practical, hands-on work experience and specific licenses. The following are job postings from real employers during May 2012:

  • A hospital in Illinois would like to hire a clinical nurse specialist who is licensed as an advanced practitioner in Illinois. You must have a master's in nursing and 4-10 years of work experience or clinical training in a critical care or intensive care unit. Having professional certification/credentialing in a nursing specialty is highly preferred.
  • A medical group in California is looking for a clinical pharmacy specialist that has a PharmD and a current pharmacist's license in California. You must also be proficient in all Microsoft software, and have exceptional organizational and interpersonal skills. Board certification in pharmacotheraphy specialty is preferred. Five years of clinical experience in hospital or ambulatory care unit, and having completed a 1-2 year pharmacy residency or fellowship is also preferred.
  • A healthcare organization in Massachusetts wants to hire a clinical nurse specialist that has an advanced practice degree. You must also have the authority to write prescriptions and possess/is obtaining a DEA number. Additionally, having an unrestricted practitioners or specialist's license in Massachusetts is also required. Prior work experience in psychiatric and/or geriatric care is preferred.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Joining a professional trade organization, such as the American College of Clinical Pharmacy or the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, may increase your visibility in the job market through their networking opportunities and group affiliation. Additionally, clinical nursing specialists can obtain professional certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center in various specialties, which may also be advantageous. This professional certification is a voluntary form of credentialing, which is not the same as state mandated licensing/certification.

Alternative Career Paths

Pharmacy Technician

If you would like to provide patient care through pharmaceuticals, but attending college for such a long time isn't an option for you, then you may want to consider becoming a pharmacy technician. You would assist licensed pharmacists dispense medications and provide administrative support in related tasks (e.g., labeling, keeping inventory) The BLS reports that you usually only need a high school diploma or GED, and on-the-job-training. The employment rate cited by the BLS for this profession is projected to increase 20% during 2012 through 2022 - which is a greater rate than that for pharmacists. However, the 2012 annual median salary for pharmacy technicians was $29,320, compared to $116,670 for pharmacists, also according the BLS.

Medical Assistant

If you want to help patients in a medical setting, but again, attending college isn't an option, then becoming a medical assistant may be an option for you. You would provide administrative and clinical support to doctors and other healthcare practitioners. The BLS reports that generally you must have a high-school diploma/GED, but there are no formal educational requirements in most states. On the job-training is usually provided. The employment rate for medical assistants is predicted to grow 31% during 2012 through 2022, according to the BLS - which is faster than registered nurses' employment rate. However, the BLS reports that in 2012, medical assistants received a median annual salary of $29,370, compared to a starting salary of $65,000 as cited by the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists.

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