The Changing Role of Pharmacists in Canada: White Paper

January 1, 1970

During the COVID-19 pandemic, pharmacists in Canada emerged as major contributors to supporting patient healthcare needs by administering COVID-19 vaccines and providing treatment advice when family doctors’ offices were closed to in-person visits.

Since then, the primary care system in Canada has been strained due to several factors exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Hospitals and emergency rooms (ERs) continue to grapple with high demand
  • Many family physicians now split their time between in-person and virtual consultations, potentially contributing to the ER surge
  • GP retirements are leaving more Canadians without a doctor, and those who have one with longer wait times

Alternative solutions are needed, and across the provinces, the role of pharmacists in Canada is increasing to alleviate some of the burdens on the primary care system.

Our white paper, The Changing Role of the Pharmacist, details how Canadian pharmacists’ roles have changed over the years and how the expanding scope of pharmacists’ responsibilities varies across provinces. It also includes key findings of our recent survey of Canadians, which explores their knowledge of what pharmacists can do, their relationship with their existing pharmacist, their relationship with their family doctor, and the type of care they seek.

Key Takeaways on the Evolving Role of Pharmacists in Canada

1. The Increasing Role of Pharmacists in Canada Varies by Province

In Alberta, pharmacists have been able to assess patients for minor ailments and prescribe a broad range of medications for these conditions since 2006. Ontario was one of the last provinces to allow pharmacists to assess and prescribe medications. As of 2023, pharmacists can assess minor ailments in all provinces, and within each province, there is a range of how many ailments pharmacists can prescribe for, from 34 in New Brunswick to 12 in Quebec.

Provincially, Albertans are one of the least aware that pharmacists can diagnose minor ailments. Ontarians are one of the most aware, likely because the change only happened in Ontario in 2023 and is still fresh in people’s minds.

2. Currently, Few Canadians Are Seeing Their Pharmacists to Have a Minor Ailment Diagnosed, But This Trend is Expected to Grow

Only 14% of Canadians have gone to a pharmacist in the last 12 months to assess or diagnose their minor ailment, although all provinces now allow pharmacists to do so.

Given that 70% of Canadians prefer receiving in-person healthcare for a minor ailment, and one-in-five Canadians do not have a family doctor, there is an opportunity for pharmacists to highlight that they can support patients in this way.

Quebecers (25%) were most likely to indicate they visited their pharmacist for a minor ailment in the last 12 months, and 27% report they do not have a family doctor, the highest rate in Canada. This suggests that pharmacists could be partially making up for the shortfall in primary care physicians in the province.

3. Expect Changes in the Way Pharmacies Are Set Up

Lethbridge, Alberta, became the first place in Canada to open a pharmacist-led walk-in clinic in June 2022. In addition to minor ailments, pharmacists can offer support in managing select chronic conditions. Nova Scotia began offering management for certain chronic conditions in February 2023 to expand access to primary care. Ontario announced two new “pharmacy care clinics” in July 2023, with plans for a third later in the year. New Brunswick followed suit with a similar pilot program, announced in August 2023.

These facilities further blur the line between pharmacist and family physician, with many undergoing a physical transformation; these clinics emulate a doctor’s office with dedicated waiting areas and treatment rooms. This trend is expected to increase nationwide as provinces increasingly change how pharmacists can do more to alleviate healthcare burdens on doctors and hospitals.

Implications for the Healthcare System

As pharmacists’ roles continue to expand, the healthcare system will continue to uncover new opportunities this shift presents.

One of the key challenges for pharmacies and pharmacists will be to help clients stay aware of the services they offer and how they can support their healthcare needs. Keeping clients informed can help alleviate stress on the primary care system, including reducing ER visits and visits to GPs for minor ailments, as well as reducing frustration among Canadians who do not have a family doctor or are experiencing long wait times.

Pharmaceutical and medical device companies should dig deeper into what this trend means for them. While traditionally, their relationships were primarily with doctors, the expanding role of pharmacists may mean they need to consider how to detail with pharmacists and potentially re-strategize how they currently interact with pharmacists and pharmacies to determine the best way to help them stay informed on the products and devices said companies offer.

The evolving role of pharmacists in Canada will also impact how pharmacists interact with GPs and other healthcare professionals, including specialists, nurses, lab technicians, and more.

Contact Our Healthcare Research Experts to Learn More

As this new audience of pharmacists gains more prescribing power, brands must rethink their approach to reach these professionals with the right messaging and offers. Given the state of the healthcare system, there is a real opportunity to enhance patient care through meaningful interactions with pharmacists.

To stay on the pulse of this latest trend and others, contact our healthcare research experts to learn more.

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