Nova Scotia

'Run off our feet': N.S. pharmacists see surge in calls for medical advice amid COVID-19

As people avoid Emergency rooms and doctor's offices, pharmacists have been dealing with a flood of calls for medical advice. And dispensing advice along with medication is making work extremely busy for some pharmacists.

'Once that phone stops ringing, it's like you can kind of take a breath and really focus on your work'

Pharmacist Graham MacKenzie runs a pharmacy in Baddeck, N.S. He says the pharmacy's phone is ringing constantly these days. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

Dispensing advice, along with medication, is making work extremely busy for some pharmacists in Nova Scotia during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We have used the term run off our feet," said Graham MacKenzie, a pharmacist and the owner of the Pharmasave in Baddeck, N.S.

The number of people seeking treatment at Nova Scotia emergency rooms was down by more than half less than a month after the initial case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the province and visits to doctor's offices are also down significantly.

It's unclear why visits to emergency rooms are down, but the head of the emergency department at the QE II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax believes fear of COVID-19 could play a role.

To keep people home as much as possible, MacKenzie is encouraging them to phone in their prescriptions and ask for advice over the phone.

Besides filling prescriptions, pharmacists can write prescriptions for some minor ailments. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

To prevent drug shortages during COVID-19, pharmacies in Nova Scotia are limiting patients to 30 days of medication, instead of 60 or 90 days, which has increased their workload.

The phones at MacKenzie's pharmacy are ringing constantly these days.

"Once that phone stops ringing, it's like you can kind of take a breath and really focus on your work," said MacKenzie.

He said callers will give them symptoms and the pharmacist will evaluate whether they can help or if the person needs to visit a doctor.

It's not unusual for pharmacists to provide medical advice given their responsibilities have been expanding for years. They can write prescriptions for ailments like heartburn and cold sores.

Curtis Chafe, chair of the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia, said the number of duties pharmacists perform was increasing slowly, but now is "going full tilt because obviously there's a need out there."

Curtis Chafe is chair of the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia. (Robert Short/CBC)

"A lot of physicians have come in contact [with COVID-19] and they're self-isolating or their clinics are closed, or they have reduced hours and patients that run out of their prescriptions are coming to the pharmacy in order to see if we can help," he said.

Chafe said a pharmacist can extend someone's prescription for a few months.

Since COVID-19 arrived in the province, Chafe has also seen an increase in the number of people seeing pharmacists about urinary tract infections and coming in for consultations about birth control.

His own pharmacy, a Shoppers Drug Mart in the Fenwick Medical Centre in Halifax, has seen a fivefold increase in medical deliveries as people self-isolate.

Chafe said that after a surge in prescriptions as the pandemic hit, things have calmed down for many pharmacies in the province.

Many pharmacies are busy extending people's prescriptions. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

As a COVID-19 precaution, many pharmacies have split their workforce in two, said MacKenzie. That way, if someone on one team gets sick from the virus, the other team can continue working.

Despite the heavy workload and added stress, MacKenzie said he is proud of pharmacy staff across the province who put themselves in harm's way to help people stay healthy.

He's also thankful for the support he's getting from the community in Baddeck.

"They'll show up here with meals for everybody and doughnuts and coffee ... and that's on an almost daily basis," said MacKenzie. "They'll just randomly show up at our door here. I would really like to thank the community for doing that."