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Your pharmacist: A front-line health care professional

Do you ever wonder if you should take a certain over-the-counter (OTC) medication? What kind of cream might be best for the irritation or sunburn on your arm? Do you have any questions about medications different specialists have prescribed?

Pharmacist with customers

Would you be surprised to learn that if you ever have these questions or any related to medications, the best person to ask is your community pharmacist?

We know our doctors are experts when it comes to keeping us healthy through regular checkups and by treating or managing our illnesses. But although doctors know what medications to prescribe and how much, it is the pharmacists themselves who are the experts in the medications. The Canadian Pharmacists Association says that pharmacists are the “medication management experts.”

Who is your pharmacist?

Pharmacists have gone to university and graduated with a degree in pharmacy. Only 10 universities in Canada have a pharmacy program. Once a pharmacist has graduated, he or she must write a licencing exam to be allowed to practice. People who come to Canada with pharmacy degrees from other countries have to be evaluated and might have to complete a special program to ensure their skills are on par with that of Canadian-educated pharmacists.

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What do pharmacists do?

Pharmacists can work in many areas: research, teaching, hospitals, clinics, business or the community. The pharmacists you usually encounter at your local pharmacy are community pharmacists. Pharmacists do more than fill prescriptions, though. They are also trained in how to help their clients, counselling them about the medications they are taking, be they prescriptions, OTC medications or supplements.

Pharmacists are also the medication record gatekeepers, working to prevent problems that could occur if there are issues with the various medications that have been prescribed.

Managing your care

It isn’t unusual for patients to have more than one doctor — a family doctor and at least one specialist to treat a specific illness or condition. Even their dentists can order medications, such as antibiotics and painkillers. When this happens, there is always the potential of one doctor prescribing a medication that would not mix well with one that another doctor has prescribed.

If you go to only one pharmacy, it has a record of every medication you take as well as a history of medications you’ve taken. When you bring in a new prescription, your pharmacist can check to see if it interacts with others or if there could be other problems. For example, one doctor may have told you to never take a specific type of medication, but another doctor who isn’t aware of this might order it. If the pharmacist has this on record, he or she can alert you to the problem and often will follow up with the doctor to fix the problem. The same holds true for OTC medications and supplements, even supplements labelled as “natural.”

If you take any prescription medications, you should always check with your pharmacist before taking anything you buy off the shelf. There may be interactions with the medications you are already taking that aren’t listed.

Solving problems

Patients are warned that if they experience side effects, they should report them to their doctor. This is definitely true in cases of side effects that could be life threatening. However, for side effects that might be uncomfortable but not life threatening, patients could speak to their pharmacist first. As the pharmacist asks questions about the problems, he or she might be able to determine that the side effects are manageable by making simple changes, such as changing the time of day the drug is taken or even eating or not eating before taking the dose.

Although pharmacists can’t prescribe medications, they often can suggest OTC solutions to problems, such as dry mouth, skin rashes and so on. Many pharmacists are also compounding pharmacists, which means they make their own preparations, such as creams and ointments, to help patients.

Expanding role

In response to our changing society, the role of the community pharmacist is also changing. Many pharmacies offer clinics where people can have their blood pressure or blood sugar measured, allowing the pharmacists to teach their clients about these health problems. This could help clients avoid more serious illness, or the pharmacists might refer them to a doctor for follow-up and treatment. In some provinces, pharmacists can now administer the influenza vaccine, and in Quebec, pharmacists will soon be able to prescribe certain types of medications.

Your local pharmacists are a valuable resource. Why not take advantage and get to know what they can offer?

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