Bolstered by early successes, drugstores are accelerating their push into traditional health care amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Loblaw Companies Ltd., which began offering COVID-19 testing for patients at a handful of its Alberta pharmacy locations in June, plans to expand the program to all 234 of its pharmacies in the province by Sept. 1.
The company says it has reached out to all 10 provinces to discuss in-store testing outside Alberta, with Ontario Premier Doug Ford this week acknowledging the possibility.
The swab tests are only for those with no symptoms or any known contact with coronavirus patients and may be useful for teachers returning to school or Canadians who take care of an older family member, said Theresa Firestone, head of health and wellness at Shoppers Drug Mart. Loblaw-owned pharmacy locations include Shoppers stores as well as Independent Foods and No Frills.
"It's very convenient. We're in every community. The other plus is they don't have to line up with people who may have symptoms. We've shared that with Ontario and with other provinces, so at this point we're looking forward to what they may decide," Firestone said.
London Drugs also conducts COVID-19 tests in Alberta. It began offering the service at six locations during the past two weeks and plans to roll it out at nine more by October. Like Shoppers, it bills Alberta Health Services for testing costs.
The service builds on other responses to the pandemic such as online pharmacist consultations and a pilot program where patients consult virtually with doctors in a private room in the store.
London Drugs, whose 82 stores are located across all four Western provinces, is among the pharmacy retailers beefing up their role in a health-care system grappling with an aging population.
"With the extended hours of operation, you can basically go in when our stores are open and be able to find a pharmacist to ask a question. So what we're able to do at that point is basically help triage the system," said Chris Chiew, head of pharmacy at the Richmond, B.C.-based retailer.
London Drugs has also hired diabetes educators to test blood sugar and cholesterol levels and assist patients with weight management and diet.
Shoppers has stepped even further into the realm of physicians, opening one of three planned medical clinics with doctors who cater to a roster of patients and walk-in services.
"There are a number of Canadians who don't have access to a family physician. And we thought there was an opportunity for us to really play a role here in terms of access," Firestone said.
Drugstores can also handle the bureaucratic side of health care, freeing up doctors to spend more time with patients, she said.
"Looking for PPE (personal protective equipment), sorting out their waiting rooms so that people are socially distanced, managing virtual care...we're able to take that burden on for them," Firestone said.
Community access and convenience are a critical advantage drugstores can cultivate as thinning profit margins prompt them to look beyond over-the-counter sales for income.
"Drugstores have faced tighter margins for generic drugs in recent years and have been looking for alternative sources of revenue," said University of Calgary economics professor Aidan Hollis.
Some provinces now allow pharmacists to vaccinate patients — flu shots, for example — and write prescriptions for certain medication, such as birth control, as well as extend prescription refills for chronic medications.
"In addition, pharmacies find it attractive to draw patients in for health care even if they don't earn profits on supplying health care: once the patients are there they may purchase other goods," Hollis said.
Drugstore chains under the umbrella of McKesson Canada, including Rexall, Guardian and I.D.A., have also started to offer the tests and have conducted more than 6,000 to date.
Metro Inc. declined to comment on any attempts to provide COVID-19 testing. The bulk of the company's Jean Coutu drugstores are located in Quebec, which unlike some provinces does not allow pharmacists to conduct testing via nose and mouth swabs.
B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba have not expressed particular interest in asymptomatic testing in pharmacies, according to London Drugs, which has reached out to all three provinces.
"They have the capacity right now to be able to do the number of tests that they want to do," Chiew said.
Ontario conducted 24,353 tests last week and can process up to 33,000 weekly through its provincial lab network, the health ministry said.
"We are looking at ways of enhancing access to testing. Having pharmacies function as testing centres is currently under consideration," spokeswoman Miriam Mohamadi said in an email.
"How to integrate pharmacies into the COVID-19 diagnostic network, specifically how they would function and for whom they would be appropriate, is being explored."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2020.
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Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press