The group representing Ontario nurses says graduates of a new "physician assistant" program are not adequate replacements for trained nurses.

Doris Grinspun, the head of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, said that if the province wants to improve care, they should simply hire more nurse practitioners instead.

Two recently hired physician assistants at Ottawa Hospital are recent graduates of a program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

The two assistants have been setting and casting broken bones, with one of them assisting orthopedic surgeons in the operating room. The assistants typically work under the supervision of doctors.

Believes training inadequate

The Ottawa Hospital said its hiring of two physician assistants has improved patient care and helped with wait times, but Grinspun said her concern is supervision doesn't always require the doctor to be physically on site.

"Actually, the physician can be supervising over the phone," she said. "Where are the clinical eyes and ears to support that judgment that these individuals will be making?"

Grinspun believes the training of the physician assistants is inadequate, given the complexity of what they're often asked to do.

Helps fill staffing gaps

The physician assistants program at McMaster University offers two years of training to those who want to work in hospitals or community clinics. The Ontario Government said in creating the role that it was badly needed to fill a gap in the province's health care.

Jodi Pachall is currently working as a physician assistant in the orthopedic trauma unit at Ottawa Hospital. After a few months of being closely supervised by an orthopedic surgeon, she can now set bones and put on a cast, or help surgeons open up patients and insert certain hardware in bones.

Without Pachall's help, certain surgeries would have been cancelled, said Dr. Wade Gofton, an orthopedic surgeon acting as Pachall's supervisor.

He said Pachall contributed when they were short-staffed.

"We don't have as much time to spend at the bedside, but with someone like Jodi around, she's always able to answer the questions, which puts [patients] at ease," said Gofton.