Canada's health care is spending a disproportionate amount of resources treating a small number of people with chronic illnesses, and more nurses working in public health could be a solution, a conference in Charlottetown has heard.

The Atlantic conference of the Canadian Association of Schools of Nursing held its annual conference in Charlottetown this week, co-organized by UPEI nursing students Jessica Webster and Kendra Cote.

Webster said students at the conference were encouraged to look beyond hospitals and doctors' offices in their future careers.

"We can broaden our scope of practice, see the person as a whole and not just their illness, and their social situation, and their mental health," said Webster.

Gina Browne of McMaster University presented research that showed in Ontario just one per cent of the population is using 49 per cent of health care resources. They are people with chronic health problems.

Kathleen MacMillan

There are opportunities to move more registered nurses into public health, says Kathleen MacMillan, head of nursing at Dalhousie University. (CBC)

"Their pain is what they can present to an on-demand medical care service," said Browne.

"That's what's addressed rather than maybe many of the underlying issues."

She thinks nursing schools should send students to communities that see chronic illness, such as mental health issues.

Kathleen MacMillan, head of nursing at Dalhousie University, agrees.

"I think [nurses] are the answer to a lot of the problems in the system," said MacMillan, "moving nurses out of a focus on institutional care to what we could offer in communities."

Cote sees this as the future of nursing.

"Moving more from acute care into the community-based, I think that's what nursing is coming to," she said.

Changes to nursing on P.E.I. have removed some responsibilities from registered nurses in hospitals, giving them to lower-paid licensed practical nurses. MacMillan said that could give RNs the chance to deal more with public health, but that hasn't happened so far.