A new study has found that although three-quarters of Ontario pharmacists can administer injections “vaccination deserts” do exist, areas with little to no access to pharmacist-administered vaccination sites.

To identify these areas, researchers at the University of Waterloo and Laurentian University mapped regions across Ontario. It was found that most community pharmacists authorized to administer injections are found in the urban region of Southern Ontario, confirming there is a geographic discrepancy.

Image credit: Canadian Pharmacists Journal.

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Ontario College of Pharmacist’s (OCP) registry data was used to determine where pharmacists were practicing. The OCP data was cross referenced with the full census from Statistics Canada to compare the location of pharmacies in relation to the distribution of the Ontario population.

“Our biggest realization is that there are many communities that do not have local access to a pharmacy at all,” says Sherilyn Houle, a professor at Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy and co-author of the study. “While medication can be delivered remotely and virtual care can be used for offsite counselling, access to vaccinations will need a more innovative approach.”

As community pharmacies are becoming the preferred locations for administering vaccinations, the ability for people in northern communities and rural areas to access pharmacies and public health care units continues to be difficult.

“Reaching these communities of individuals will require innovative ideas including mobile vaccination clinics and additional training for pharmacists located in these areas,” says Sherilyn Houle.

These findings have immediate and long-term applications for the public. With the ongoing pandemic and influenza season affecting many, vaccinations are more important than ever.

“It might simply be that there are too many barriers in some rural communities to access vaccination sites. We need both re-education and the availability of trained pharmacists to service rural areas,” says Patrick Timony, a senior research associate at Laurentian University and co-author of the study.

Policy makers and health professionals need to be creative when addressing these issues, since solutions that have been effective in urban centres do not necessarily work for all Ontarians, especially in rural and remote regions.

“We have to recognize where the gaps remain and plan accordingly to bring seasonal services to provide for hard-to-reach communities and hopefully encourage practicing pharmacists in those areas to become trained in vaccination, if they haven’t already,” says Sherilyn Houle.

There is an additional limitation for primarily French speaking populations in Ontario. In areas where at least 25% of the population speaks French, there are not enough French-speaking pharmacists to service those areas.

It was found that most French-speaking pharmacists practice in areas where the smallest French-speaking population resides, with many of the larger French-speaking populations located in “vaccination deserts”.

The landscape has changed drastically in these past few years and a shift has occurred where pharmacies are becoming more relied upon as vaccination providers. However, pharmacists alone can’t meet these needs for all communities. Without a pharmacy, many services cannot be provided.

Sherilyn Houle

The study, Identifying vaccination deserts: The availability and distribution of pharmacists with authorization to administer injections in Ontario, co-authored by Sherilyn K.D. Houle, BSP, PhD, Patrick Timony, MA, Nancy M. Waite, PharmD, and Alain Gauthier, PhD, was a collaboration between University of Waterloo and Laurentian University. The study was recently published in the Canadian Pharmacists Journal.