Alberta government applauds expansion of pharmacy care clinics, critic calls it ‘Band-Aid’ solution

Click to play video: 'Alberta government applauds expansion of pharmacy care clinics'
Alberta government applauds expansion of pharmacy care clinics
The Alberta government is celebrating a decision by Shoppers Drug Mart to expand primary care access through clinics run by pharmacists that can address simple health needs or renew prescriptions. But health groups say the province needs to put its focus elsewhere. Kabi Moulitharan reports. – Jan 25, 2024

Alberta’s health minister held a news conference on Thursday to talk about a major expansion of pharmacy care clinics by Shoppers Drug Mart in the province.

“This significant investment of $77 million will profoundly impact our province, ensuring greater access to primary care for Albertans and further strengthening our health-care system,” Adriana LaGrange said while speaking to reporters in Edmonton.

Shoppers Drug Mart says it plans to open 44 more pharmacy care clinics in Alberta this year. The clinics will be in the store’s pharmacies and offer services like assessment and treatment of colds, pink eye and urinary tract infections.

“This commitment by Shoppers Drug Mart to invest in primary care in Alberta’s communities aligns with our government’s ongoing efforts to refocus the health-care system,” LaGrange said.

In Alberta, pharmacists can assess patients and prescribe medications for minor illnesses and injuries, administer vaccines and assist with managing chronic illness.

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While LaGrange suggested she welcomes the news of Shoppers Drug Mart expanding its services in this realm and that she believes it may help ease the strain felt by hospitals and family doctors, others questioned the significance of the announcement.

“This is not in any way, shape or form a replacement for an increase in access to the important professional public health care received by front-line professionals like doctors and nurses,” Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said, adding that does not mean it is not helpful for pharmacists to be able to assist further in the health-care sector.

“The announcement today is just not a replacement for that. No matter what you call it, what you brand it, it’s not a family doctor, it’s not more nurses.”

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Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor with the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said while pharmacists play an important role in the health sector and that Alberta has been a leader in terms of expanding scope of practice for pharmacists, she has some concerns.

“The concern with what we’re seeing here is, much like when the government was pushing Telus and some of those virtual health-care services, it’s really a Band-Aid solution to people not having consistent access to a regular primary care provider,” she said.

“While a virtual walk-in clinic or a pharmacist can patch people through in an emergency situation where a prescription has run out or they develop the symptoms of a urinary tract infection overnight, or those sorts of issues, ultimately what we want is for people to have a consistent medical home with a family doctor that manages their health over a longer period of time.”

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Click to play video: 'Second pharmacist-led care clinic opens in Lethbridge'
Second pharmacist-led care clinic opens in Lethbridge

She noted that pharmacists are specifically trained on medication.

“Patients may come in with issues that can be solved with medication, but ultimately those conditions may have other aspects to them — lifestyle factors, those sorts of things — that would be better discussed potentially with a physician.”

Premier Danielle Smith said she believes the Shoppers Drug Mart expansion is a step forward for primary care in the province.

“Alberta’s health-care system is under severe strain and it has been for a long time,” she said.

“There is an urgent need to find fixes and deliver accessible care fast and efficiently.”

Notley said she believes the government needs to do more to stabilize the health-care system, indicating that more could be done to improve the treatment of nurses and that the province should move more quickly to allow nurse practitioners to open their own clinics.

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Notley added that she worries that the Shoppers Drug Mart expansion could be “part of an effort to get people used to paying for parts of their health care.”

Carmen Wyton, the chair of the Women’s Health Coalition of Canada, called Thursday’s announcement exciting and said it is “vital at this time” to take new approaches in primary care.

“There needs to be more gateways than just family physicians and walk-in clinics to address the everyday needs,” Wyton said. “Where I am a little bit more concerned is that primary care doesn’t represent women’s health well.

“(It’s) great that there’s more gateways, but we need to make sure that those gateways have the capacity and capabilities to take care of all Albertans.

“Pharmacists are a key to advancing women’s health because they have the capabilities, they have the scope of practice, we just need to make sure they have that emphasis on gynecological health.”

Wyton added that the “challenges that we have in the health-care system will be addressed through innovative approaches, and I think this is the start of them.”

Shoppers Drug Mart opened its first pharmacy care clinic in Lethbridge, Alta., in June 2022.

Shoppers Drug Mart is owned by Loblaw Companies Ltd.

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— With files from The Canadian Press and Caley Gibson and Kabi Moulitharan, Global News

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