Ontario’s pharmacists now have an expanded role in providing healthcare services. As of this month, new Ministry of Health rules allow them to prescribe medication for 13 minor ailments, a change that brings the province in line with much of the rest of the country.
“Ontario is the fourth last province to do this. All other provinces except for BC, Nunavut and Northwest Territories have already implemented this in some form. Alberta was first in 2007,” explained Jen Belcher, vice-president of strategic initiatives and member relations for the Ontario Pharmacists Association.
There’s a wide variety of ailments that pharmacists can now prescribe medication for, including hay fever, oral thrush, pink eye, dermatitis, menstrual cramps, acid reflux, hemorrhoids, impetigo, insect bites and hives, tick bites sprains and strains and urinary tract infections.
“This change will help free up primary care providers to tackle some of the more complex issues,” Belcher said.
“This is one way of enabling people to get more convenient and timely care for some of these minor conditions that can be safely managed in the pharmacy setting…. This will help keep people out of walk-in clinics or emergency department for these non life threatening conditions. And for those that don’t have a family doctor, it’s one way that they can access prescribing care,” she said.
According to Belcher, while many Ontarians have a difficult time accessing a primary care provider, or they live far away from their doctor, 95 per cent of the population lives within a five-kilometre radius of a pharmacy.
“So it may even just be, location-wise, more convenient to you if you’re more rural or remote.”
Local pharmacist Samer Mikhail sees it as a cost-saving measure.
“For Ontario, as you know, the health department has a big budget to be considered. So the government is trying to see that financial plans can be helpful and kind of creating an economical way of providing the services to Ontarians,” the owner of Elmira’s Woolwich Total Health Pharmacy said.
Because the conditions now being handled by pharmacists are generally minor, they do not requiring diagnostics such as x-rays, Mikhail explained.
“Of course one of the things that people will say is “the pharmacist will start kind of doing clinical examination and go ‘ open your mouth,’ but, no, that is not one of the steps that will be done, because it is through a minor ailment condition, which does not need that type of clinical examination or blood-work or imaging,” he said.
This is also beneficial to the patients, says the pharmacists association.
“If you don’t have a family physician, if it’s after hours or on a weekend, if you’ve called for an appointment, and they’re not able to see you for a couple of weeks – because we know that family physicians offices are working exceptionally hard right now to take care of everyone as well – so if you’re not seeing timely access to care, this provides you with another option for how you could access it,” Belher said.
While patients now have the option, it is not an either or thing, Mikhail said.
“The patient is not reaching a kind of a crossroad. You have to decide to go the pharmacist or to go to the doctor now – we are one team. The pharmacists work with a doctor for the patient to provide the treatment plan assigned by the doctor. And that is the role of the pharmacist in the community, the link between the doctor and his patient,” he said.
The pharmacist is also required to inform the patient’s primary care provider, and they must inform the person receiving the prescription filled by the pharmacist who recommended it, added Belcher.
While there may be some Ontarians who are hesitant about the change, there is plenty of evidence that this system works, she added.
“Many of these provinces in Canada show that pharmacists do a really, really good job with this, and that once the public kind of gets used to the idea of going to their pharmacists, they really enjoy getting that service from their pharmacists,” she said
Mikhail agreed that there might be hesitation, but there are clear benefits.
“I know in the beginning it’s a change that will get concerns, but it will help the community and the patients to achieve the service in some time in a way that is easier for them.”