Newfoundland pharmacies offering free STI testing, amid ongoing doctor shortage

HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis testing is being offered in certain pharmacies across Newfoundland as of Thursday. The tests are part of a research study to increase education about STDs and to encourage people to get tested.

Tests are being offered at participating pharmacies for one year

A pharmacy desk with pill bottles behind it stands beside a shelf with medication.

Aside from headache medication, flu shots or a bag of chips, Newfoundlanders can now head to certain pharmacies across the island to receive a free and confidential sexually transmitted infection (STI) test.

HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis testing is being offered in some pharmacies across Newfoundland as of Thursday. The tests are part of a research study to increase education about STIs and to encourage people to get tested. They also come amid an ongoing doctor shortage and healthcare crisis in the province.

"Many of our pharmacies are also overwhelmed with work and demand," said Debbie Kelly, a professor with Memorial University's school of pharmacy and the principal investigator of the study.

"I really commend the pharmacists that are participating in this study cause they understand what a huge commitment this is and they've made sure that they have the resources to be able to participate."

Kelly says tests are being offered in three pharmacies in western Newfoundland, two in central Newfoundland and six in the eastern region. There are currently no tests being offered in Labrador, but Kelly says she's trying to get pharmacies to offer them there soon.

The tests are being offered at participating pharmacies for one year.

Addressing the lack of accessible testing options

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, Gerard Yetman, the executive director of the AIDS Committee of N.L., said STI testing was only done in emergency situations.

Yetman says more tests are being conducted across Canada as of recent, but that the number of people getting tested is still low. He says people can't receive treatment for a sexually transmitted disease if they don't know they have one.

"I think there's a large number of people who could be carrying the virus," said Yetman, "but have not gotten tested because they probably haven't developed any serious symptoms yet."

A blonde woman wearing a black and white blouse talks in front of a green chalkboard.

Yetman and Kelly say that, without accessible testing options in the province, more people could be diagnosed in advanced stages of infection or not at all, which could cause serious health problems.

Yetman says testing in Newfoundland and Labrador is particularly challenging because the province only has one modality for testing, which is blood drawn tests. This isn't readily available for many in the province, especially for those without a family doctor and those living in rural areas, because a lot of people have to receive these tests at hospital emergency rooms.

"We have a high number of people that don't have access to a family physician," said Yetman. "So this project is very exciting … because we'll actually be able to refer our clients to what we know is gonna be a safe, non-judgmental service to get their testing."

Cindy Maloney, a pharmacist at SRx Pharmacy in St. John's, says it's important for anyone who wants to get tested to do so with ease and somewhere they feel comfortable.

"We can immediately connect them with care," said Maloney. "People may be afraid to get tested, but it's better to know if you have one of these conditions because they're all treatable."

Patient privacy is a top priority

In terms of rollout, Kelly says tests are relatively quick and conducted in a private room at the pharmacy. She says patients' privacy is important, and that it's a top priority for her to ensure people feel safe coming into the pharmacy.

Depending on the pharmacy, tests will be offered on a drop-in basis during advertised hours or by appointment. She says after contacting the pharmacy for a test, patients can expect to be brought to a private counselling room to meet with a pharmacist.

The door will be closed the whole time, and she says pharmacists will not ask patients questions about their risk behaviours.

A man wearing black glasses and a black suit talks into a microphone.

"The pharmacy is not only a place where we can get healthcare, but it's a hub in our communities and people are there for a lot of different reasons," said Kelly.

Maloney says those who may feel uncomfortable talking about testing can write that they would like to get tested down on a piece of paper, for example, and hand the note over to a pharmacist, who will then handle it discreetly.

"This kind of topic is a very sensitive topic for people," said Maloney. "There's a lot of stigma attached to HIV, hepatitis C and syphilis, so if we can test people without them having to worry about that kind of bias, I think that would be a good thing."

The tests are being rolled out as part of the APPROACH study, a research project to implement sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection (STBBI) testing programs in community pharmacies.

In the pilot APPROACH study, launched in 2017, 123 rapid HIV tests were performed over six months in two pharmacies in both Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta. Over 99 per cent of participants in the pilot study said tests should be offered routinely at pharmacies, according to a news release from Memorial University.

A woman wearing a white lab coat sits in front of a desk with a computer.

In this version of the study, tests are being offered in participating pharmacies in Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Through this project, Yetman says he hopes to encourage policy changes and have discussions with the provincial government about the effectiveness of pharmacy-based testing.

"Our role in this project is to do the education with the people with whom we are all working with," said Yetman. "Get the education out there, the awareness out there, how important it is to get tested."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn

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