In Fort McMurray, a student explores pharmacy care

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Northern Lights visible above Fort McMurray, Alberta.

7 hours north of Calgary, the northern lights are easily visible in Fort McMurray.

By Alana Rigby

In Canada, Alberta is looked on as the leading province for pharmacy practice. All Albertan pharmacists can order lab tests and initiate therapy for minor ailments, and those with additional authorization can prescribe independently for most prescription-requiring drugs. These are all services Ontario pharmacists can’t provide.

Doctor of Pharmacy student Chris Voss wanted to see Albertan pharmacy practice in action. For his first co-op term, January-April 2017, he only applied to jobs in Alberta.

“I’d worked at a community pharmacy in Ontario for three years,” explained Voss. “I wanted to see something different. For me it was an adventure, driving across the ‘great white north’ to this place where pharmacists have so much autonomy.”

Voss landed a work term at Dave Hill Pharmacy in Fort McMurray. In May 2016 Fort McMurray made headlines worldwide as a devastating wild fire forced the evacuation of the town and surrounding areas. Dave Hill Pharmacy was the only pharmacy to stay open during the evacuation, providing medical supplies and toiletries to firefighters, police, the oil sand companies, and civilians during the chaotic time.

On the left, the historic Hill Drug building; on the right, pharmacy delivery vehicles.

Left: now a historic building, the original Hill Drugs was run by Dave Hill’s grandfather in 1934. Right: The pharmacy delivery vehicle that Voss drove.

“Not a lot of family doctors came back after the fire. This left a big gap in care for patients. With only about 25 family doctors in town, you can imagine how difficult it was for patients to get a doctor’s appointment.”

Given this need, the wide scope of pharmacist practice was especially beneficial. At Dave Hill Pharmacy, there was always at least one pharmacist with the additional prescribing authorization working at a time. They could also refer patients for lab work or to pharmacist-run clinics where they received support for chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension.

Voss lived most of his life in Waterloo, so a co-op term in northern Alberta was quite a change – there were some days when the thermometer read -40 degrees. Despite that, he wants to go back next term.

“It was a fantastic experience. I’m already applying to Alberta for my next co-op. It’s where I want to work when I graduate.”