AB Shoppers Drug Mart clinic plan won’t improve access to primary health care

The plan announced Thursday by an Ontario-based drugstore chain to add new stores in Alberta and renovate older ones does nothing to improve access to primary health care in this province.

So why was it touted by three cabinet ministers as if it were an earth-shaking development that would ease Alberta’s ongoing crisis in access to health care caused by, among other things, shortages of physicians and nurses, rampaging respiratory infections, and chaotic administrative changes to Alberta Health Services (AHS)? 

A statement published on the website of the regulatory college for Alberta’s pharmacists last fall explains that if pharmacists use the term “clinic” to describe their business, they must make it clear that it is not a medical clinic, and that no physicians offer services from the location.

If a pharmacy team chooses to use the concept of ‘clinic’ when identifying or advertising their pharmacy, they must include the pharmacy’s name and differentiate their services from that of a medical clinic,” said the Alberta College of Pharmacy (ACP) statement, a sentence emphasized in boldface type.

The ACP statement explains that allowing pharmacies to pretend they are a species of medical clinic would require a change in the Pharmacy and Drug Regulation of the Pharmacy and Drug Act.

The statement goes on to note that pharmacies must choose the name under which they intend to operate and that name must be approved by the ACP.

“The approved operating name must be used to support the public in knowing that the location is a pharmacy, what health services are being provided, that the services are being provided by pharmacists and pharmacy technicians (if applicable), and where they should expect to be able to access their health record of the services received,” reads the ACP statement.

“The public must know, without any risk of confusion, that they are seeking pharmacy services from a pharmacy,” the ACP web page states unequivocally. 

The fact this statement was published on the college’s website on October 18, and also publicized on social media at that time, suggests the ACP was aware this marketing trend was coming to Alberta, and that the regulatory college was concerned about it. Indeed, at least one other drugstore chain has opened similar clinics in some of its stores. 

The October 18 statement concludes: “Whether a pharmacy team identifies its pharmacy as a ‘pharmacy clinic’ or not, the same care is expected to be provided to the public by any community pharmacy.” (Emphasis added in all quotations above.)

This final point is important too, since it means that despite the completely legitimate concerns expressed by experts about creeping privatization of health care and the potential for conflict of interest when sellers of medication can also prescribe it, nothing has changed at this time. 

As a result, the statements by Premier Danielle Smith, Health Minister Adriana LaGrange, and Jobs, Economy and Trade Minister Matt Jones about how the “clinics” springing up in Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies will improve access to health care for Albertans are at best meaningless and at worst intentionally deceptive.

The only marginal improvement in access that can be honestly claimed is Shoppers’ intention to open 44 new locations – and that assumes they don’t plan to close old ones.

In addition, nothing can be done to give the ministers’ misleading claims any meaning without either regulatory change by the government or an effort by the corporation to find physicians who are willing to work in its Alberta drugstores. The problem with the latter idea, of course, is the same as that faced by any other health clinic looking for new medical practitioners in Alberta: There aren’t enough! 

It remains unclear who organized the news conference. Did the idea for the presser originate with the government, Shoppers, or Invest Alberta? 

If it wasn’t organized by the government, and the government as stated by Jones made no contribution to Shoppers’ $77-million budget for the new stores and renovations, why did the UCP think it was worth sending three cabinet ministers to the event? 

If it was organized by either the government or its Crown corporation, why wasn’t that made clear? 

It is interesting to speculate on the purpose of the on-location dog and pony show. 

Presumably it was put together so that the government could claim to be doing something to improve access to health care at a time most of its health policy initiatives seem to be making things worse. 

But was it also intended to distract from the embarrassment of the premier’s obsequious performance Wednesday at Tucker Carlson’s White Fragility Tour?

According to a report filed to the provincial lobbyist registry in late December, five lobbyists from Wellington Advocacy Inc. lobbied various Alberta government and agency officials “to discuss Albertas (sic) long-term economic development and to share details and raise awareness of the services offered by Shoppers Drug Mart and Loblaw Companies Limited,” as well as “the federal government’s recently proposed National Pharmacare program.”

The team of lobbyists was made up of former Jason Kenney staffers Nick Koolsbergen, Clancy Bouwman, and Peter Csillag; Leah Ward, a former communications director to retiring Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley; and Trish Rinneard, a former advisor to the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. 

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