Pharmacy life in the little big town of Fort St. John

Updated on May 30, 2018 (Originally posted on May 29, 2018)

For almost seven years, Irvin Tang has been based in northern B.C. as associate at the Shoppers Drug Mart located in downtown Fort St. John. Little did Tang know that his career calling would be in pharmacy, let alone in a small oil and gas town of 22,000 residents. When the sports enthusiast’s application to study physiotherapy at UBC was declined, a friend recommended pharmacy instead. Still keen to pursue health, Tang applied for the pharmacy program, was accepted and never looked back: “Pharmacy became my new challenge.”

During his practicum, Tang headed east to work at Shoppers Drug Mart, in both Brantford and then Toronto. Tang soon felt the pangs of B.C. calling him back but this time, he headed north to conduct relief work for several months in Kitimat. Upon graduation in 2005, Tang continued with Shoppers with a two-year gig in Fort St. John, followed by several years in Victoria.

But in 2011, a strange turn of events changed his life’s direction. Following up on some paperwork for a new position with Rexall on Vancouver Island, he contacted his former employer, Shoppers, and heard the associate owner position was available. Tang promptly applied, packing his bags and heading north to join Shoppers once again. Tang has been in Fort St. John ever since.

So you are back in Fort St. John. What makes this community your home? 

People assume that a small city means it’s a one-road town, that it’s rural. Quite the contrary. Fort St. John may have a population of 22,000 but there is also an oil and gas industry here. That brings jobs and work opportunities. I also see a younger population. In fact, Fort St. John has one of the highest birth rates per capita in Canada. You get a mix of young families, the farming community and lots of folks from Vancouver and Victoria. 

Is there any difference between large and small cities when it comes to minor ailments prescribing?

Minor ailments prescribing is not an issue restricted to Fort St. John. We see the issue of physician shortage all around. What I consider to be a major advantage of a small community is that patients could rely on pharmacists for health-care support and not have to go to a physician for minor ailments, especially if wait times are two to three weeks long.

We are also close to the border of Alberta where pharmacists have the authority to prescribe for minor ailments so when patients come to B.C., they don’t understand why they can’t get the same treatment. It’s not only frustrating for patients, it’s frustrating for pharmacists. We end up using an online app to get medical counsel, which is helpful in the interim but it also leads one to be dependent on online physicians. I do see value in the app, however, when patients need peace of mind for minor health conditions while waiting for results from their physicians.

Do you enjoy working in a larger pharmacy versus a small, independent one?

There is an advantage in being in a larger pharmacy. For example, there is only one Shoppers Drug Mart in a 75 km radius, so we have an advantage of being able to operate more frequently, such as over the holidays. As a larger store we “never close,” as some patients have told us. We’re open on Christmas Day. If we weren’t open that day, then your sick child wouldn’t get the treatment they need. They should not have to go through another day. Last Christmas, in four hours, about 80 people or scripts came through, and a good number were from emergencies. Hospitals don’t provide medicine but pharmacies do. Patients can come to us. We are here to help.

Is it easy or difficult to find good pharmacy staff in Fort St. John?

Staffing is quite unique here. We see a big age gap in our staff, attracting recent high school grads and college students and then those in their 30s and 40s, seeking part-time work. We don’t get people in their 20s. When it comes to finding good talent in the area, most applicants do not have the required skills to work in a pharmacy. An interesting part of our recruitment efforts is that we see an expansion in applicants from international backgrounds. For example, rather than applying and, at most times, compete for positions in busier locations such as Vancouver, I have colleagues who are transitioning into Canada, getting their residency and learning their way around here. They find being in a smaller community really helps them to practice their English yet still enjoy all the things B.C. has to offer. And it tends to be mostly females that enter the pharmaceutical field here, as males go into the gas and oil industry.

Any last words to share about pharmacy life?

Pharmacies play a crucial role, not just in dispensing medications, but from a budget point of view where health-care costs need to be shared and managed across the board. Pharmacists can assist physicians in providing health-care knowledge, helping to free up the physicians’ time. Physicians and pharmacists get along very well in a smaller community. We even have physicians’ cell phone numbers so if we don’t know them by face, we can certainly speak to them on a regular basis. Pharmacies don’t have barriers; we are accessible. 

This article is featured in The Tablet. The Tablet features pharmacy and industry news, profiles on B.C. pharmacists, information on research developments and new products.