Nova Scotia pharmacists stepping up to address gaps in health care
As waiting lists for doctors grow longer, pharmacies are becoming go-to provider of health care
Pharmacists in Nova Scotia are changing the way they operate to meet the growing needs of patients who can't find help elsewhere.
With a record 95,000 Nova Scotians currently registered on the province's wait-list for a family doctor, pharmacies are increasingly becoming people's go-to provider of primary care.
"We never closed our doors through the entire pandemic. So we're hearing from people by phone, in person, through email, through other means, all the time, just looking for health-care advice," said Diane Harpell, a pharmacist and owner of Medicine Shoppe in Dartmouth.
The influx of patients seeking care at pharmacies has led to longer than usual wait times, and in some cases patients might be asked to book an appointment and come back at a later date.
"We're trying to do it as conveniently and as efficiently as we can … I hope that folks will get used to that and understand all of the different things that we're trying to do for Nova Scotians. It just can't be done all at once," Harpell said.
Harpell has been a pharmacist for 20 years, and is also the board chair for the Pharmacy Association of Nova Scotia.
ER closures, other pandemic pitfalls
Pharmacists' scope of practice has expanded — to assessing and prescribing minor ailments and administering injections — to improve access to health care in the province.
"Everything that we do is to fill in those gaps in the health-care system," Harpell said.
Pharmacies are also acting as triage centres as emergency room closures become more frequent across the province, particularly in rural areas.
"Day after day, we have patients come in and a lot of times we have to refer them to an ER. And it's a shame because, of course, our local ER is closed and we have to refer them elsewhere," said Michael Hatt, a pharmacist and owner of The Medicine Shoppe in Port Hawkesbury.
The next closest hospital is in Antigonish, about an hour drive away.
Hatt said the profession has changed "drastically" since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and there is a lot of frustration among patients, particularly as more doctors retire and the province works to improve recruitment and retention in rural areas.
Labour shortages, burnout
Like every other profession, pharmacists and pharmacy support staff are dealing with labour shortages and burnout.
"Staffing from the pharmacy side of things is pretty tricky these days. The last two years has felt like five or 10 years," said Michael McIntyre, who was a pharmacist in Berwick for five years before taking on a role as operations manager for 16 pharmacies across the province.
Part of his new role is addressing staffing challenges, as there aren't enough new graduates to fill the vacancies.
On top of all that, pharmacies in Nova Scotia are also the main provider of COVID-19 vaccines.
"We're still kind of carrying the brunt of the vaccination on our backs. So it's going well, but it's a lot," he said.
Despite the burnout, pharmacists are eager to continue expanding their scope of practice. For example, pharmacists can analyze lab work but they're not able to order it themselves.
"I like to be able to do more and to be able to help the public in more ways than what I currently am able to, and it also does a service to the health-care system," McIntyre said.
"Pharmacists being the most accessible health-care professionals are able to take a bit of the grunt work off the emergency rooms, off the family practitioners. Then that frees up their time to be able to do more services that they are a little bit more specialized for."