Alberta Health Services is launching a two-year pilot project to introduce a new medical position to clinics, hospitals and long-term care homes across the province.

Physician assistants (PA) are academically trained and certified to act as an extension to a doctor.

They have been employed with the Canadian Forces for more than 40 years, but are only now being introduced elsewhere in the province.

Cindy Gilmore has worked as a military PA for five years. She said the biggest difference between her job and that of a nurse practitioner is that PAs always work with a physician while NPs are licenced and can work independently.  

“I can see anyone within my scope of practise and then if there’s more urgent people that come in, I can assist [the doctor] with it — and that basically gives two people helping out.”

“It gets people in faster, it allows us to more remote locations where there's currently doctor shortages and it just increases the amount of medical access patients will have,” she added.

Some nurses are concerned about the lack of regulation defining the PA role. While PAs in Manitoba are regulated, which guarantees all PAs have met certain qualifications in terms of education and experience, PAs in Alberta remain unregulated.

This worries some nurses.

Mary-Anne Robinson, the CEO of the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta, said the lack of regulation raises questions about the exact role PAs can play.

“Can they prescribe? Well, it depends. Can they diagnose? It depends,” she said, “Because they're unregulated, that's not known.”

“In other words, what can they do and what can they not do? So that we don’t put patients at risk here, we need clarity around that.

“It does introduce a high degree of complexity and we know that when you introduce more complexity into an already complex health-care environment, that the risk of medical errors increases.”

Ten new PA positions will open up across the province this fall.