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UW study says pharmacists could save feds $42 million

A new report from Wasem Alsabbagh, a professor in the University of Waterloo School of Pharmacy, outlines the savings that would come from expanding the role of pharmacists in Ontario’s health-care system. [Submitted]

If pharmacists were to prescribe for minor ailments, it would not only help lessen the burden on the healthcare system, but it would also save the province upwards of $42 million, a University of Waterloo study shows.

Conducted by Wasem Alsabbagh, professor at the school of pharmacy, the study used mathematical modelling to examine the impact of compensation for pharmacists prescribing for minor ailments. Ailments looked at for this study included upper respiratory tract infections (URTI), contact dermatitis, and conjunctivitis.

“This will be a major step for smaller towns in Ontario, because the good primary health care is the care that can be provided at the time you need it, where you need it. We know that community pharmacies are well distributed in the province, including Woolwich, so, people have this convenient accessibility to the pharmacy, as opposed to booking an appointment with their family physician or going to the ED (emergency department) which is probably some distance they have to go,” said Alsabbagh. “[The] importance of utilizing all parts of the system could not be clearer than what we are living [through] right now. During the pandemic time pharmacists showed how much they can contribute in taking the strain off a strained healthcare system.”

Alsabbagh says the government of Ontario asked the Ontario College of Pharmacists to submit a proposal of what the service would look like. After consultation with health care professionals and the public, they submitted a proposal with 12 ailments which people could have treated by a pharmacist.

With the implementation of pharmacists prescribing for ailments, the number of patient visits to walk-in clinics, family doctors and emergency rooms would be significantly prevented. This would allow physicians to take more time for “complex cases,” while saving the provincial government – and ultimately the taxpayer – money.

Of some 30,000 people with a upper respiratory tract infection, for instance, if 38 per cent were to go to a pharmacist there would be 590 fewer visits to hospital emergency departments, 2,200 fewer visits to family doctors and 3,100 fewer visits to walk-in clinics.

Currently there are eight provinces in the country which already allow pharmacists to prescribe for minor ailments. While the style of billing varies between provinces, the study looked at a compensation model similar to the one used in Saskatchewan. The results showed that savings of $12.30 (URTI), $4.90 (contact dermatitis) and $9.30 (conjunctivitis) could be achieved, corresponding to a total $42 million in savings.

It should be noted that this amount is a fraction of the potential savings should more health conditions be considered as well, though Alsabbagh’s study did not tally the full amount.

How the system would work in practice remains to be seen, but Alsabbagh says he envisions people being able to simply walk into a pharmacy and get treatment.

“I imagined that I will walk to the pharmacy and say can I see the pharmacist for my minor ailment. Then they will probably ask me to go to the confidential area in the pharmacy, where I can explain my symptoms, and the pharmacist will help me make this right decision and if there is a need to write a prescription for me, for the right treatment… most importantly for minor ailment, there is no need for physical assessment. By definition of minor ailments there is no requirement for a lab test to do the diagnosis. So, if there is any need for any tests, then the right referral will be made at that time,” he added.

Local pharmacist Raj Patel of Elmira Remedy’s Rx Pharmacy says this is something he and other pharmacists have been waiting for, saying this should have happened sooner in Ontario.

“The government should have done this a long time ago. This is overdue, and our skills and expertise, especially that is not utilized in the best way by the government. They are playing very safe. They have their own concerns and we recognize that… [but] I feel that we are falling behind,” said Patel. “I feel a pharmacist can safely play a role, to reduce the burden especially on the hospital emergency, walk-in clinic and we can help government to reduce the financial burden as well from the hospital and waiting list and so on.”

Currently there is no expected launch date for this initiative in Ontario.

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