Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Health Authority eager to hire physician assistants in pilot project

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says it's a matter of when, not if, it will start hiring physician assistants — something that has been touted by advocates as a great way to fill gaps in a province that faces chronic nursing and doctor shortages.

There are 650 physician assistants in Canada, but so far, they can't work in Nova Scotia

Dr. Mark Taylor says the Nova Scotia Health Authority strongly believes physician assistants could alleviate some of the backlog in the health-care system. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

The Nova Scotia Health Authority says it's a matter of when, not if, it will start hiring physician assistants.

The idea has been touted by advocates as a great way to fill gaps in a province that faces chronic nursing and doctor shortages.

The health authority is waiting for final approval from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia before it can hire three people to test the job in a pilot project.

"I think it's a great step forward for Nova Scotia and it's one of one of the ideas that will help us move the health-care system along," said Dr. Mark Taylor, the interim vice-president of medicine at the health authority.

Physician assistants are widely used in the United States, Manitoba and Ontario. Their role is similar to a medical resident. They take on basic assessments and straightforward cases, all under the supervision of a physician.

Physician assistants work directly with doctors, taking on their routine assessments and tasks. (DedMityay/Shutterstock)

While some of their tasks are comparable to a nurse practitioner, nurse practitioners can work independently, while physician assistants cannot.

Earlier this week, Brittany Belair, who does the job at Toronto Western Hospital, made the case for Nova Scotia to create the position, and allow more health-care workers to move back home. Nova Scotia's Health Department told CBC News that plans to create the position were in the early stages.

Taylor said there's funding available for the pilot project.

Expedited process

"I'm hoping it'll be before the summer, but I'm not certain of that... I'm doing what I can to expedite it, but it's within the purview of the college," he said.

The delay is that the health authority and college have had to create a way to regulate and license physician assistants.

Taylor said they've had a number of meetings over the last year to come up with a model.

Once approved by the college, the health authority will hire three people to work in orthopedics at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Halifax.

Physician assistants could be in place across Nova Scotia in 2 years

If those physician assistants prove to be valuable, Taylor wants to see physician assistant positions created throughout the province within two years.

The doctor and nurse shortages aren't the only motivation to create the jobs now.

Taylor said physician assistants will be key once the final Saudi Arabian medical residents leave the province. The Saudi government is not expected to sponsor any new students in Canada when the current students finish their studies. 

Taylor said he's seen the benefits of physician assistants, who are widely used in the Canadian Forces.

"I spent six months on a ship in the navy and the assistance provided by the physician assistant was invaluable," he said.

A complement, not a replacement

He emphasized that physician assistants will be an addition — not a replacement — to the current positions in the health-care system.

"These physician assistants will in no way impede the hiring of of new physicians," he said.

"We absolutely recognize the need for more family physicians and we'll do what we can ... to recruit them."

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia could not be reached for comment.

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