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Pharmacists in Alberta are expanding to provide more services, such as prescribing medication and interpreting lab tests

Krystle WittevrongelIf 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.

Since Shoppers opened its first clinic in Lethbridge, Alberta, in 2022, it has quickly grown its network to 59 clinics across the province. It has just announced this number will grow to 103 by December of this year.

For a province with a primary care system in crisis, this is welcome news.

Pharmacists in Alberta have the training to do much more than just counting pills and filling 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.

alberta pharmacists

Photo by Jakayla Toney

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

And the provincial government agrees. As Premier Danielle Smith puts it, this latest 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 of the pressure off of primary care physicians, benefitting Albertans who can’t get an appointment with their family doctor or who simply don’t have one.

After all, pharmacists are licensed not only to renew or adjust current prescriptions, they also can prescribe new medication when needed.

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

Some critics are skeptical of the project, saying that pharmacists can’t replace doctors, but they’re missing the point.

The goal of these clinics is not to replace physicians but rather to complement their work and take on the most routine cases. This allows physicians to focus on the patients only they can treat.

As 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 percent 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, take a patient who arrives at the pharmacy clinic with a sinus infection requiring 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.

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 really difficult to talk about health holistically, let alone consider the drug interactions from other conditions.

Unlike with doctors and nurses, Alberta has no shortage of pharmacists. Data shows Alberta has almost as many pharmacists as British Columbia, serving a population that is about 15 percent smaller.

It’s time we utilize them to their fullest extent.

Krystle Wittevrongel is a Senior Policy Analyst and Alberta Project Lead at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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