Women-only pharmacy opens in Vancouver

September 4, 2009

Controversy has arisen over the implications of extreme-niche pharmacy in Vancouver, B.C., where a store catering only to women opened in July.

Key Points

"We have never provided services to men," said Caryn Duncan, executive director of the Vancouver Women's Health Collective, which has been dispensing health information and advice to women since 1971. "We don't expect that to change now that we have opened a pharmacy."

Opening a women's pharmacy is not a new idea. This year, students from the University at Buffalo School of Pharmacy, Buffalo, N.Y., won first place in the National Community Pharmacists Association's Pruitt-Schutte Business Plan Competition. Their business plan for Isabella's Apothecary focused on early intervention and chronic-disease-state management tailored to the needs of women.

Current NCPA President Holly Whitcomb Henry, RPh, is one of many pharmacists who have focused their own pharmacy operations on women.

"It makes good business sense to focus on women," said Whitcomb Henry, who owns a pharmacy in Seattle, Wash. "Seventy percent of consumers who shop in pharmacies are women. A pharmacy that caters to women is a natural."

She said a women-only pharmacy is stretching the envelope. The VWHC agreed. Duncan said Lu's is the first women-only pharmacy in North America. The business is designed to support the collective's community outreach and education programs.

"Lu's is in an economically depressed part of the city," said Susan Ogilvie, spokeswoman for the British Columbia Pharmacy Association. "Women in that downtown Eastside neighborhood don't have easy access to full-service pharmacy care."

The neighborhood, one of the oldest in Vancouver, is widely known for poverty, drug use, and a large homeless population, Ogilvie said. Most area pharmacies focus on dispensing methadone. Typical decor features security grates, bullet-resistant Plexiglas barriers, and armed guards. Lu's dropped the Plexiglas and armed guards, but kept the security barriers.

The pharmacy does not stock methadone or other narcotics and customers are admitted individually through a locked door. Patients are a mix of neighborhood women and VWHC supporters from around Vancouver. The VWHC has long restricted its services to women who were born women.

No men have ever tried to fill scripts at Lu's. If a man did ring the doorbell, Duncan said, "I'd be outside having a conversation with him. We are here to support women's health and to focus on women's issues."

It remains to be seen whether Lu's women-only focus creates legal problems. Whitcomb Henry noted that a pharmacy in the United States that excluded men would be in murky legal waters. State pharmacy regulations as well as standards of practice and ethical codes generally require pharmacists to provide services without regard to gender.

Canadian regulations, standards of practice, and ethics also require pharmacists to provide services to anyone with a valid prescription and the ability to pay, said Lori DeCou, spokeswoman for the College of Pharmacy of British Columbia, the province's public agency responsible for regulating pharmacy practice.

Thus far, B.C.'s men don't seem bothered by Lu's women-only stance.

Clarification to pharmacy loyalty story (August 2009): CVS has continually updated its ExtraCare Rewards program. In recent months, CVS has introduced ExtraCare Coupon Centers, kiosks that allow shoppers to swipe their rewards cards at the start of a shopping trip. CVS says millions of cardholders have linked their ExtraCare cards to their accounts on http://CVS.com/. The dual ExtraCare/debit card is no longer available.