Nova Scotia

NDP calls for expanded use of physician assistants to ease health-care staffing crunch in N.S.

Physician assistants, or PAs, work alongside a doctor and have similar roles and responsibilities to a medical resident. They can perform assessments and write some prescriptions.

Former Liberal government launched 3-year pilot in 2019 using PAs

Susan Leblanc is the NDP health critic. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

As Nova Scotia's health-care system continues to suffer under the strains of COVID-19, the NDP is renewing a call for the expanded use of physician assistants.

Physician assistants, or PAs, work alongside a doctor and have similar roles and responsibilities to a medical resident. They can perform assessments, order tests, assist in surgeries and write some prescriptions.

The former Liberal government launched a three-year pilot project in 2019 using three PAs working in Halifax. NDP health critic Susan Leblanc said on Tuesday it's time for the current government to expand that number.

"There are people in Nova Scotia who are able to do this work who are licensed to do it," she said.

"At this point, it really does feel like we should be using every means necessary to make sure that people are getting health care."

All hands on deck

The Omicron variant has hit the province's health-care system hard, taking anywhere from 500 to 700 doctors and health-care staff out of the system each day because they either have COVID-19 or they're isolating as a close contact.

Meanwhile, emergency departments are slammed with patients, and procedures and surgeries are being cancelled because there isn't capacity within the system to perform them.

Leblanc said that at a time when retired nurses and doctors have been called back into service and help has also come from the military and Red Cross, it only makes sense to tap all available resources.

"If there are people who are skilled and able to do the work, why are we not putting them to work?" she said.

Kevin Dickson, president of the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants, and one of two PAs working in the emergency department at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital in Fredericton, said he and his colleague have no shortage of work during shifts.

"Some days we see up to 30 to 40 per cent of volume, leaving the higher acuity, the higher sickness, the more critically unwell patients to the physicians," he said in an interview.

Kevin Dickson is a physician assistant who works in the emergency department at the Chalmers hospital in Fredericton. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Dickson said his understanding of the pilot program in Halifax is that it's going well and the three PAs have successfully integrated into their teams. In Halifax, they're supporting urgent orthopedics and cancer surgeries, as well as traumas, in-patient care and emergency department consultations, according to a Nova Scotia Health spokesperson.

If things were opened up, Dickson said there would be interest from people connected to Nova Scotia to come home to work. There's also a group of "work ready" PAs in the military with connections to the region who would also be interested in working here once their service time is over, he said.

Leblanc said it not only makes sense to incorporate more PAs into the system now, but also into the future.

"Frankly, when the pandemic is over, our health-care system still needs a lot of help and we need better ways of alleviating the pressures," she said.

A spokesperson for the Health and Wellness Department said the government would wait until the pilot program is complete to evaluate next steps.

"Government is interested in learning how this position is working to support our health-care system," Marla MacInnis said in an email.

MacInnis said making improvements to the system means "looking at the scope of practice of all health-care workers. This includes, but is not limited to, physician assistants."

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