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Pharm Fresh: Exploring the Expanding Role of the Pharmacist

When you think of a pharmacy, what comes to mind? What about the role of a pharmacist? Most people think of a pharmacy as a depository of medicine and pharmacists as “medication experts”, who dispense drugs based on a set of instructions called a prescription. While filling and dispensing certainly does happen in the pharmacy, it describes only a segment of what licensed clinical pharmacists actually do. The reality is that the pharmacy profession can offer a rewarding career with diverse job prospects, hefty responsibilities and direct patient care.

A more comprehensive explanation of the pharmacist’s role requires an understanding of their scope of practice. This scope varies between provinces with differing extents of responsibilities and duties. However, at the core, pharmacists are health professionals that make sure the drugs prescribed for patient are appropriate. Pharmacists must have a profound understanding of not just the drug itself, but how it works and interacts inside the patient’s body. They must assess the safety and effectiveness of the medication. Is it at a strength that the patient can tolerate, will the drug be safely absorbed and eliminated, and does it interact with foods, drugs or other disease states? Is the drug correct for the described symptoms and underlying condition, and are there risks of toxicities to the patient? Pharmacists must conduct detailed assessments and histories with the patient to ensure that the therapeutic intervention is appropriate for the given health issue. They must also communicate with all relevant health care providers when needed and counsel the patient on medication taking, adherence and expectations. They are also responsible for devising a monitoring plan and conducting regular follow ups along the way. Furthermore, they often play a major role in promoting public health awareness, such as conducting vaccinations and managing chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease.

In certain provinces, like Alberta, pharmacists have an even wider scope, wherein they have greater prescribing privileges as well as more clinically-relevant duties. For instance, they can provide primary care for the treatment of minor ailments, authorize prescriptions for most drugs, administer vaccines and injections, order and interpret lab tests and intervene in emergencies. Providing these primary care services can free up the healthcare system and contain costs. In turn, these added roles place increased demands on the pharmacist to ensure that they exercise their competencies and practice to their fullest potential.

Furthermore, pharmacists are the most accessible health providers in the community since they are always available without appointment to answer drug information questions, advise on managing health needs, help people with any sudden ailment (e.g. pain, injury etc.) and educate on the use of medical devices like inhalers. Yet, despite how much the profession has grown and diversified over the past handful of years, many people still don’t know what pharmacists can actually do.

Pharmacists work in highly diverse fields. While many are in the traditional community/retail setting, some work in compounding pharmacies, which involve mixing and combining medications into more complex formulations like suspensions or topicals. Apart from these more traditional roles, there are many other job opportunities within the pharmacy profession that may spark the interest of aspiring undergraduate students. You could manage or own your own independent pharmacy business, work within a collaborative healthcare team as a hospital pharmacist, or work in numerous community care settings, such as long-term care, ambulatory care, palliative care, outreach engagement teams and so on. One may also work in the pharmaceutical industry, the provincial government, education, research and academia.

While you may still be on the fence about pursuing a career in pharmacy, I hope that, at the very least, you have gained greater insights into what pharmacists can do and why it’s a uniquely exciting profession to consider pursuing. Pharmacists are able to excel in a wide array of practice settings and positions, making them trusted health advocates in our communities. Their growing need, coupled to their increased responsibilities and interdisciplinary roles, are key to ensuring that patients receive access to drug therapies with optimal efficiency and outcome.

Photo by Anna Schvets from Pexels

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