British Columbia's nurse practitioners could help ease the province's strained health care system, says the head of the profession's main association in B.C.

In order to do that, they say the funding model the provincial health authorities use to hire nurse practitioners has to change.

Right now, most primary care is delivered through family physicians and walk-in clinics that bill for each patient seen, said Kathleen Fyvie. president of the B.C. Nurse Practitioner Association.

"We don't believe that the fee-for-service model is the best model for nurse practitioners to be working in," Fyvie told On the Coast host Stephen Quinn. 

"It ends up being a volume-driven practice, which has limitations in terms of how comprehensively you can deal with patients' health issues."

Instead, the nurse practitioner association is proposing an alternative payment plan to the health authorities, under which health care practices could apply for part of a pot of money to pay the salary of a nurse practitioner.

"The salary model has worked well in many instances," said Fyvie.

Her comments come in the wake of a petition submitted by the Walk-In Clinics Association of B.C. that calls on the provincial government to act on a physician shortage.

 Can operate alone

Nurse practitioners can perform most type of treatments needed by walk-in clinic patients, including diagnosing illnesses and injuries, making referrals to specialists and prescribing most medications. Since 2005, they have been able to operate in B.C. without physician supervision.

Fyvie pointed to the North Shore Health Science Centre primary care clinic in Kamloops, B.C. as an "extremely exciting" venture. The clinic opened in March, and is staffed by a team of nurse practitioners.

"It's very early days, but ideally, the positive outcomes demonstrated by this innovative care model will lead to expansion of these models in other jurisdictions," said Fyvie.

There are currently just over 450 nurse practioners in B.C., according to Fyvie. It's a "fairly small number," but she said nurse practioners are able to work in any health care setting.

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast.