There’s less time spent in discomfort, less chance of the condition making you sicker, and less chance of spreading illness to family members.

Prompt treatment brings economic benefits too, such as reducing or eliminating time lost from work. But what are the benefits of prompt access for the larger healthcare delivery system, especially in economic terms?

A recent report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) highlights some potentially troubling trends. CIHI reports that Canadians visited emergency rooms approximately 17 million times in 2013 – 2014.

Compared to Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, we are among the world’s most frequent users of emergency rooms.

Here’s why that’s a concern. CIHI estimates that of the emergency room visits that did not result in admission, about 20 per cent (1.4 million visits) were for conditions which could potentially be treated in a different, more appropriate setting.

The ailments for which Canadians went to emergency rooms — which are equipped, staffed and organized to give priority treatment to those patients with critical or emergency needs — most frequently included acute upper respiratory infection, antibiotic therapies, throat inflammation and ear pain.

A general survey of Canadians conducted to support CIHI’s research found that nearly half (47 per cent) could not see their family doctor in a timely manner; 38 per cent believed the ER was the best place to receive the care they needed and seven per cent were not aware of alternative care settings.

Enabling pharmacists to treat minor ailments and administer vaccines is an important step that will result in better patient outcomes, according to “9000 Points of Care: Improving Access to Affordable Healthcare,” a policy document published by Canada’s broader pharmacy community in 2013.

“Enabling pharmacists to treat minor ailments and administer vaccines is an important step that will result in better patient outcomes…”

Having neighbourhood pharmacists treat minor conditions, like sore throats and cold sores, will also provide physicians with up to 15 per cent more time to treat more complex cases and divert a significant number of patients from non-essential emergency room visits.

“9000 Points of Care,” also refers to a pilot program conducted in Scotland from 2001 to 2006, which reduced physician visits for minor ailments by up to 37 per cent.  To date, five provinces in Canada allow pharmacists with the proper training to prescribe for minor ailments.

The big-picture economic benefits, “9000 Points of Care” estimates that up to 2.4 million physician hours (as much as $3 billion in physician costs), as well as 1,500 hospitalizations and 600,000 fewer reduced emergency room visits could be avoided, or directed to more urgent care needs, by enabling neighbourhood pharmacists to provide the care Canadians need, closer to where they live, work and play.