British Columbia

New abortion pill rollout hits regulatory snag in B.C.

A controversial new abortion pill being rolled out across the country is already running into regulatory problems in British Columbia.

College of Physicians and Surgeons says Health Canada rules won't work here

Health Canada announced that it had approved abortion drug RU-486 for prescription use as of July 1, 2016. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

A controversial new abortion pill being rolled out across the country is already running into regulatory problems in British Columbia.

Doctors across Canada can now prescribe the home abortion pill Mifegymiso, more commonly known as RU-486, but the drug isn't expected to be available in Canada until the fall

Mifegymiso can be used to terminate a pregnancy up to 49 days after conception.

Health Canada has set a number of special rules for the drug, including requiring doctors to take an online course before they can prescribe it. 

But one of the biggest issues in B.C. is, unlike with most drugs, Health Canada's rules require doctors dispense the drug to patients themselves.

'Serious concerns'

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. says doctors in the province aren't allowed to dispense drugs directly to patients except in special circumstances — for example, when working in rural areas where there are no pharmacies available.

"The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. has serious concerns about Health Canada's decision regarding physician-only dispensing of Mifegymiso, and is advocating for the conventional method of pharmacist dispensing," said a college spokesperson in an email.

Dr. Wendy Norman with UBC's School of Population and Public Health said family physicians and gynecologists across the country have been "loud and clear" about their inability to coordinate buying, selling and maintaining stock of the drug in their offices.

"It's an absolutely inexplicable regulation that's against all of the progress in safety that we've made for drug prescriptions," Norman said. 

Health Canada urges caution

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott said she has heard the complaints, and the guidelines may be adjusted — but not until after an initial trial period. 

"We are committed to making sure that this medication is accessible," said Philpott. 

"But with any medication, particularly new ones, it is important that the prescribers have the appropriate competence, that they are well-informed as to the nature of the medication, and what it's effectively to be used for, what concerns to watch out for."

Dr. Ellen Wiebe, one of the first physicians to provide MAID services in Canada. (CBC)

Dr. Ellen Wiebe, medical director of Vancouver's Willow Women's Clinic, questions Health Canada's logic. 

"That doesn't make any sense because this is a 20-year-old drug that has been used millions of times safely across the world. Why would Canadians be any different?" she said. 

She said doctors in B.C. aren't generally allowed to dispense drugs because the province has determined that most medications are better monitored through the B.C. PharmaNet system used by pharmacists. 

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of B.C. said it would be meeting with the colleges of pharmacists and registered nurses, and the B.C. Health Ministry to discuss provincial solutions.