Opinion: Pharmacists can lend a hand to our ailing health-care system

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By Krystle Wittevrongel

If your neighbourhood pharmacy hasn’t opened a clinic in the past year, there’s a good chance it will by the end of this one.

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Since Shoppers opened its first clinic in Alberta — in Lethbridge in 2022 — it has grown its network to 59 clinics across the province, and recently announced this will grow to 103 by December. For a province with a primary care system in crisis, this is welcome news.

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Pharmacists in Alberta have the training to do much more than just count pills and fill prescriptions. Indeed, their scope of practice is quite broad compared to their counterparts in most other provinces. Alberta’s pharmacists have the skills to, among other things, prescribe medication, order and interpret lab tests and vaccinate the public.

That’s why the Manning Report recommended they use the full scope of their training to improve access to primary care in the province.

The provincial government agrees. Premier Danielle Smith said the expansion of pharmacist clinics “will help ensure Albertans can get the answers and services they need when it comes to their health.”

Increasing the use of pharmacists will take some pressure off of primary care physicians, benefiting Albertans who can’t get an appointment with their family doctor — or who don’t have one. After all, pharmacists are licensed to not only renew or adjust current prescriptions; they also can prescribe new medication when needed.

Since it opened, the clinic in Lethbridge sees between 40 and 60 patients a day who would otherwise have likely sought care in doctors’ offices or ERs.

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Some critics are skeptical of the project, saying pharmacists can’t replace doctors, but they’re missing the point. The goal is not to replace physicians, but to complement their work and take on the most routine cases. This allows physicians to focus on the patients only they can treat.

The Lethbridge clinic reports it has been able to lighten the load on the local emergency room and clinics. For instance, some non-urgent cases were referred to the clinic by local pediatricians.

One area where pharmacists shine is in prescription-related issues or concerns. In contrast with physicians, pharmacists tend to perform a more comprehensive review of a patient’s history and medications.

As problems with medication have accounted for more than 10 per cent of ER visits across the country, having a pharmacist more involved can help. This is particularly important for people with multiple chronic conditions requiring several different medications. For example, consider a patient who arrives at the pharmacy clinic with a sinus infection that will require antibiotics. The pharmacist may note that they are also medicated for high blood pressure, and that the medication they take for it has been shown to interact with some antibiotics and can result in hospitalization or death. The pharmacist will then prescribe an appropriate antibiotic. In a busy walk-in clinic with time- and complaint-related restrictions, this might have been missed.

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That’s right, complaint restrictions. You might have seen it in your family doctor’s office: the sign that informs you that it’s one issue per visit. General practitioners are overwhelmed and restrict the number of ailments you can discuss during a single visit. This makes it difficult to talk about health holistically, let alone consider drug interactions.

Unlike doctors and nurses, Alberta has no shortage of pharmacists. Data shows we have almost as many pharmacists as British Columbia, to serve a population that’s about 15 per cent smaller. It’s time we utilize them to their fullest extent.

When a boat is taking on water, there’s no good reason to stop some people from bailing, especially if they have buckets at hand.

Krystle Wittevrongel is a senior policy analyst and Alberta project lead at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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