'A really positive thing': Wider prescription range for pharmacists applauded

Sexual health experts are calling changes to pharmacists' scope of practice in Nova Scotia a step in the right direction, but say they'd like to know more about what's involved.

As of Dec. 1, pharmacists can write prescriptions for birth control, routine bladder infections and shingles. They can also extend an expired prescription up to 180 days.

"We didn't know that that was coming, so we were pretty surprised to hear it," said Leigh Heide, the provincial co-ordinator at Sexual Health Nova Scotia. "But on the surface it seems like a really positive thing."

Heide said there aren't many details yet on whether the assessment and prescription process varies from pharmacy to pharmacy, or if there are differences in what's available at certain pharmacies.

More information sought

"We'll get more information as time goes on I'm sure," Heide said. "But we'd like to have access to as much information as we can about this so we can let people know."

Despite the questions, Heide said the changes help with some of the barriers people face when it comes to accessing primary care in the province.

Heide, who lives in Lunenburg County, said the area has only one walk-in clinic and two emergency rooms, one of which is frequently closed. 

"It's a challenge for everyone right now really to get to see a doctor if they don't have a family doctor," Heide said. "I think it could be a really good sort of intermediary solution."

Many people in Halifax without family doctors rely on the Halifax Sexual Health Centre for prescriptions for birth control or for urinary tract infections.

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"If you're looking to start a new prescription, or change your prescription, you might have to wait four-to-five weeks to get in to see a physician because there's just not enough doctors," said Kate Calnan, the centre's executive director.

Patients often don't have that long to wait, Calnan said, especially when it comes to treating urinary tract infections, which are quite common.

Out-of-pocket cost

But pharmacists' assessments aren't covered by provincial health care or private plans, so patients will need to pay. Fees vary by pharmacy.

"Having any cost attached to it is a barrier for folks," Heide said. "So it comes with that kind of little factor that may be preventing quite a few people from accessing this."

The Halifax Sexual Health Centre has compassionate programs, Calnan said, and they raise money to provide birth control to those who can't afford it.

Calnan said there is still work to be done, and she would be excited to talk to pharmacists about how they can implement their own compassionate programs to make their assessments more accessible.

"Overall we're just really happy with the progression, and we're always advocating for improved access to any kind of sexual reproductive health care," Calnan said. "This is great."