What are physician assistants and how could they ease P.E.I.'s health-care crisis?

Two of the political parties hoping to win the upcoming provincial election say physician assistants could improve access to health care. Some other provinces have licensed PAs, but only three schools in Canada offer the required training.

The advanced practice health-care providers are in high demand across Canada

two people scrubbing for surgery
Physician assistants work with doctors in a variety of different settings, including emergency departments, surgery and family medicine. (Submitted by Erin Sephton)

Two P.E.I. political parties are looking to physician assistants to help solve the province's health-care crisis. 

The Progressive Conservative and Green parties have included the advanced practice health-care practitioners as part of their election platforms. 

Physician assistants are already licensed to work in several other provinces.

They're trained to work with doctors in a variety of settings — like clinics, family practices, emergency departments and operating rooms.

person on screen
Erin Sephton has worked as a physician assistant in family medicine and now orthopedics. (CBC )

Erin Sephton, the P.E.I. chapter president of the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants, said PAs take some of the workload from doctors, which ultimately improves access to care for patients.

"Physician assistants are able to see patients with a variety of different acuity levels. So from very, very sick to 'I have a cough or cold' versus 'I need stitches,'" she said. 

"We are able to see patients independently. We review with our physicians or surgeons to kind of come up with a plan, but we're enabling the physicians to see more acute and more complex patients, while we can see everything else."

Help in high demand

But there's a catch. 

With the whole country in a healthcare crisis, physician assistants are in high demand.

Sephton recently moved to Nova Scotia, the latest province to start using them. She now works in orthopedics there.

"In terms of overall patient care and continuity of care, there's definitely been an improvement with the addition of physician assistants," she said. 

person scrubbing for surgery
Physician Assistant Erin Sephton is working in Nova Scotia, where she works directly with doctors, to ease the pressure on their time and improve access. (Submitted by Erin Sephton )

"If our surgeon is in the operating room, you can still get a hold of the PA to deal with an acute issue on the floor or in the community. So that's definitely adding a big impact."

There are only three universities in Canada that offer the two-year graduate level training program: two in Ontario and one in Manitoba.

And while about 70 people graduate from the programs every year, there are many more job postings advertised. 

Sephton said an increase in training programs would definitely help.

person typing
There are only three universities in Canada that offer the two-year graduate level training program. (CBC)

In terms of how they are different from nurse practitioners, Sephton said there is some overlap. 

"The training is a bit different. With physician assistants, we're trained under the medical model. So normally our program is reflected of that of a medical school program, whereas nursing is a master's degree of nursing," she said.

"In terms of what we can do, nurse practitioners are independent practitioners  — meaning they have their own license, they practice on their own — whereas physician assistants, we work under the license of a physician."

The PCs have said they would hire physician assistants if they are elected, and the Greens have said they'll work with UPEI to start a physician assistant training program.

For Health P.E.I.'s part, the agency said physician assistants have been on their radar for several years now.

But adds there's still a lot that needs to happen to get them hired and working on P.E.I. 

With files from Steve Bruce