It’s late in the evening and you just got home. You’re preparing dinner and you start experiencing the dreaded but familiar signs of a urinary tract infection (UTI). Throughout the night, you keep running to the bathroom, uncomfortably passing cloudy urine. With the doctor’s office closed and no nearby walk-in clinics available, you realize that your only option for a prescription you’ve taken countless times before is the emergency department (ED).
Anxious and in discomfort, you wait for hours in the busy ED, knowing that you’re occupying a spot someone with a more acute condition may need. This situation adds to the ongoing “hallway medicine” problem in Ontario, highlighting the urgent need for accessible and efficient health-care solutions to address common ailments like UTIs.
If you’re one of the lucky ones, you would have access to a primary care doctor or nurse practitioner. But the latest research from the Ontario College of Family Physicians suggests that 2.2 million Ontarians are without access to a family doctor.
Between choosing emergency care or no care for minor ailments, another option exists for patients in Ontario – since January, you can be seen by a pharmacist; upon an assessment through a standardized algorithm, you will receive an appropriate prescription.
Minor ailments refer to short-term conditions that can often be self-diagnosed and managed without major interventions. These are conditions that do not require lab tests to initially identify the condition and require minimal follow up. Both Ontario and British Columbia joined other provinces in leveraging pharmacists as prescribers in 2023.
In a time where patients experience shortages of health-care professionals and long wait times, this can make a big difference, especially if the next best option is no health care at all.
Pharmacist prescribing is not new.
Not everyone is on board with these expansions in scope. There is worry that pharmacists are unprepared or that this new system will bring challenges to patient safety. However, pharmacist prescribing is not new. In the United Kingdom, patients have received care from pharmacist prescribers since 2003. In Alberta, pharmacists have been prescribing since 2006 and can also order lab tests.
Pharmacists have expert knowledge on medications. Graduates of Ontario pharmacy schools receive a professional doctorate degree, three years of training and a full year of hands-on clinical practicums within both community and hospital settings. Pharmacists are ready.
Pharmacists have already treated almost a quarter of a million patients since Ontario’s expansion in scope, demonstrating the demand and need for this type of care in the community. However, as patients leverage this to scale, we need to continue to study and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of the program.
To maximize such benefits, pharmacist prescribing must be conducted with a collaborative approach. With each prescription, the primary care physician must be informed. Collectively, this ensures that patients are safe, that follow up will be provided and, ultimately, that patients get the care they need on a timely basis.
From a community perspective, physicians will face reduced workload in areas that pharmacists can take on. That way, they have more capacity to address complex conditions. As a result, pharmacist prescribing provides a win-win outcome for patients, health-care professionals and the health-care system as a whole.