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Are pharmacist-run clinics the answer to Alberta’s primary care crisis?

By Ava Zardynezhad, August 17 2022—

In late June, Lethbridge’s Real Canadian Superstore opened Alberta’s first pharmacist-run walk-in clinic. This is a pilot program under assessment for the next six months upto a year. Loblaw has allocated $500,000 to the University of Alberta to study this initiative and to have students train at this location. All this is being done in hopes of alleviating the burden on the province’s primary care services. The clinic is expected to receive 11 additional healthcare providers. Yet, of the over 100,000 individuals living in Lethbridge, 33,000 are without a family physician. 

In a recent survey by the Alberta Medical Association, many Albertans have complained about longer emergency waiting times — most reported waiting up to five hours. Seventy-one per cent of those surveyed believe timeliness has declined in Alberta’s emergency service over the past four years and 49 per cent believe quality of care has also declined. In the second quarter of the 2021-2022 cycle, there was a 12 per cent increase in emergency room visits when compared to the same quarter of the previous cycle. Moreover, daily visits to urgent care centres have increased by 62 per cent since April of 2020. Now, it’s easy to attribute increased visits and longer wait times to misuse of the system, however, the problem is much larger than that. 

It’s no secret that Alberta is suffering from a primary care crisis. Primary care physicians, markedly family physicians are leaving the province to practice elsewhere. There are many reasons that motivate moves such as these, but Alberta’s current UCP government is to blame for many of them. Over the years, the Alberta government has shown a lack of support in the Health Care system and towards practitioners. Since 2020, their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other disputes such as changes to the physician billing system have created great mistrust in the UCP government. 

With less primary care physicians around, wait times for patients will increase. However, this also means less Albertans will have access to proper continued care that includes preventative procedures such as routine check ups and screening tests. This step is key, as much of our health care crisis can be attributed to serious, complex conditions that have gone undetected at their conception. Many studies have shown how primary care increases preventative care and therefore contributes to decreasing overall healthcare costs. So, it’s a wonder why our province isn’t being more accommodating to primary care practitioners. 

In addition to the dearth that the province’s healthcare system is experiencing, the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted our healthcare system, leaving healthcare workers burnt out and overworked, with little support and consonance from the Alberta government. This leaves Alberta in a destructive loop, where not enough primary care physicians are available to Albertans for routine care, as a result, Albertans are living with conditions that go unnoticed until they are forced to use emergency care and hospitals, at which point, these institutions become even more overwhelmed due to a shortage in staff and resources. 

In Alberta, we are in a unique position. As of 2007, Alberta pharmacists can diagnose minor ailments, refill prescriptions for chronic illnesses without a note from a physician and can administer vaccines. This might just present a solution to our primary care problem. It’s only unfortunate that we’ve had to wait this long before the full potential of our province’s health care staff was utilized. 

In the same vein, in recent months, Alberta nurse practitioners have been renewing calls for the government to create a similar system where they are able to provide primary care services to Albertans in hopes of helping our strained system. Nurse practitioners in Alberta share many of the jurisdictions that family physicians do, such as the ability to order tests, make referrals, prescribe medication and manage chronic conditions. 

This new pharmacists-led clinic holds a lot of hope for Alberta’s primary health situation. Creating a space for other primary care practitioners to provide services to Albertans can help lessen the burden on our emergency care services and our hospitals. It is worth mentioning that promoting greater awareness of the full responsibilities of the healthcare practitioners and allied health services available to Albertans can optimize use of the various sectors of our province’s healthcare system and hopefully alleviate some of the burden placed on it. 

However, it is also crucial to think about the increasing number of physicians who leave our province every year. Pharmacist- and nurse practitioner-led clinics might be effective solutions to a problem, however they do not completely eliminate the aching wound of our healthcare system and the neglect it’s suffered over the past few years. 

This article is part of our Opinions section.

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