A new method of testing for seasonal influenza may help relieve the strain on medical institutions and reduce wait times for Canadians who have fallen ill.

This new process, known as point of care testing, was launched on Monday Jan. 5, at Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Alberta. If the pilot test is successful, it is possible the system will be implemented across the country by next year.

Currently, if an individual thinks they have contracted the flu, they have fairly limited options in confirming the influenza and receiving treatment, like, going to the emergency room, visiting a walk-in clinic, or making an appointment with their general practitioner. These options are often impractical due to long wait times at hospitals or clinics and it can sometimes take weeks to secure an appointment with a family doctor.

With point of care testing, an individual who believes they have the flu can simply go to their local pharmacy and undergo a short medical test. The pharmacist takes a nasal swab from the patient and then inserts the sample into a device called a “Veritor” reader. Within approximately 10 minutes, the pharmacist can view the results of the test and determine whether the patient has the flu with up to a 90 per cent accuracy rate.

At the program’s pilot pharmacies in Alberta, if an individual tests positive for the flu, the pharmacist can prescribe them an anti-viral medication instantly. The procedure requires a fee from the patient, however no appointment is necessary.

Peter Marshall, of P.C. Marshall & Associates, was involved in negotiating an agreement with Shoppers Drug Mart to launch the program. He calls the development “cutting edge” and believes the program will soon become widespread across the country.

“This new technology will revolutionize the way that flu testing is done in Canada,” he stated.

Marshall also believes that the testing should become government funded, allowing the service to become free for all Canadians. By conducting point of care testing within pharmacies, he feels hospitals can better care for other patients. This is because point of care testing takes the strain of flu testing away from hospitals and labs, moving them into pharmacies.

The new system can be especially beneficial for university students studying away from home, who do not have a local family doctor to visit. It may also ensure that individuals such as the elderly and small children, who are particularly at risk to death from the flu, receive attention immediately and efficiently.

Despite these benefits, the potential for corruption within the process still remains. This can be seen in the fact that the same pharmacists conducting the tests and diagnosing the flu are also the ones dispensing the anti-viral medication. Whether this is a conflict of interest will become an issue of intense debate among experts and analysts of the industry.

The new point of care testing will likely become a topic that engages many Canadians, since the flu is such a widespread illness. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s FluWatch report, the majority of laboratory flu detections occurred in the provinces of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, during the week of Dec. 14 – 20, 2014.

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