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Health Canada is looking at ways to streamline its approval process to help patients in rural areas access better healthcare options, the agency’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Paul Blais, said Thursday.
In the last three years, the federal government has approved more than 4,000 new drug applications, he said.
The average age of applications was 55, compared with 40 for other provinces and the United States.
Blais said some provinces have set up their own approval processes for new drugs, while others have chosen to allow provinces to oversee the process through the National Pharmaceutical Safety Board (NPSB).
But in rural communities, which account for a significant number of drug applications submitted to Health Canada, the process is often more cumbersome and expensive.
A survey of pharmacists across the country by a Canadian Medical Association research group found that roughly 75 per cent of those surveyed said they had been denied a drug application because of the age of the applicant or because the person didn’t have a valid prescription.
In some cases, the NPSB could only approve a few medications a year.
The agency, however, has said it is taking steps to make the approval process more efficient, including opening the approval pipeline for new applicants to be reviewed by the NPDB, which would be made public later this month.
But some members of the public have expressed concerns about the process, saying it can take months to get a new drug approved.
In rural areas, that is especially true for some medicines, such as antibiotics and insulin, which require lengthy approval processes and can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce.
“It’s been the slowest approval process for the drugs we’ve had,” said Diane Waddell, who was a pharmacist for 15 years before retiring in 2014.
“There are people who want to get the drugs sooner, but if we delay it for a couple of years we can get them in their time.”
The government has also said it will be providing $1.5 billion in grants to rural hospitals to help them access drugs more quickly and cheaper.
The federal government spent about $9.5 million in 2015 on health care for rural hospitals.
Blais said the money will go towards the National Rural Health Initiative, which aims to reduce health care costs for rural residents and increase access to health care.
Health Canada also plans to create a “community pharmacy pilot program” that will allow pharmacists to help deliver new treatments to rural communities.
Other government initiatives to ease access to drugs are also underway, including a proposal to allow the use of generic versions of prescription drugs on the same insurance plans that cover them.
Health Canada also said the government is reviewing the pricing of prescription medications and will announce a review in the coming months.