In small Alberta communities, the struggle to recruit pharmacists is real
Small communities across Alberta are struggling to recruit pharmacists for vacant positions.
Zicki Eludin, 72, doesn't want to continue running the Crescent IDA Drugs pharmacy in Lac La Biche — and working every day — but can't find someone to replace him.
He's been trying to hire someone for three years and says not a single pharmacist has applied for the position.
"It's impossible to get pharmacists to Lac La Biche," said Eludin.
"I used to put in a job opening, and I would get dozens of applications. I don't even get one now."
Lac La Biche, 210 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, is a hamlet of 2,300 people within Lac La Biche County.
Towns and villages across Alberta are facing a pharmacist shortage, according to the Alberta College of Pharmacy, which oversees pharmacy practice in the province.
There is greater per-capita demand for pharmacists in small communities, according to ACP registrar Greg Eberhart, which risks putting excessive stress on the few pharmacists working in rural areas and exacerbating the shortage.
"If we don't have healthy pharmacists, we're not going to have healthy communities," said Eberhart.
Tofield pharmacist and Alberta Pharmacists' Association board member Darren Erickson has also struggled to recruit employees.
After posting an opening at his pharmacy last year, Erickson said he waited months before receiving a single application.
"New grads do not seem to want to leave the city," he said. "It seems like the further you get away from the city centre, the bigger the problem is."
Eludin says he enjoys coming to work but wants to spend more time travelling with his wife. He's aiming to pass control over the business to his son, who's also a pharmacist, but says two people are needed, citing greater responsibility since he opened the pharmacy in 1976.
Alberta began allowing pharmacists to prescribe most medications in 2007. Pharmacists in the province still have more prescribing powers than those in any other Canadian jurisdiction.
County Mayor Paul Reutov said Lac La Biche has also had a hard time finding physicians. He said the community needs 13 physicians to meet AHS coverage standards, and there are currently five doctors working.
"All rural municipalities are experiencing shortages in doctors and all staffing," said Reutov. "It's just a challenge to find and attract and retain."
Eludin believes physician service shortages make his role in the community more important.
"Instead of making an appointment that's two weeks down the line, they can walk in and say, 'Zicki, I need to talk to you about this issue I have,'" he said.
Long-time Lac La Biche resident Eugene Uganecz, 79, has Type 2 diabetes. While he gets pharmaceutical care in the community, he says he sometimes has to seek medical treatment outside the county.
"We go to Bonnyville or St. Paul or Edmonton," said Uganecz.
"You can even drive from here to Fort Saskatchewan and go there for emergency if you have to."
In September, the federal government announced doctors from other countries could start applying for permanent residency through the express entry system. In November, Canada began allowing pharmacy assistants to apply for the express entry system.
Eludin, the Lac La Biche pharmacist looking to ease up on his work, believes Canada needs to expand its medical training programs.
"We've stripped a lot of professionals from poor countries, whether it's doctors, pharmacists," he said.
"We're taking them away from where they may be needed more."
The per-capita number of pharmacists in Alberta is higher than ever before, and the number of pharmacies has also increased, according to Eberhart.
But with widespread health-care shortages stoking demand, the need for pharmaceutical care continues to outstrip supply.
"It's a very complex situation right now," he said.