British Columbia is among the last holdout provinces in regard to the licensing and regulation of physician assistants, but recent developments suggest the integration of PAs into the B.C. health-care system is nearing reality.
Physician assistants are health-care professionals who work with physicians to provide health care. Under the overall supervision of a physician, PAs take histories, conduct physical examinations, order and interpret tests, diagnose and treat illnesses, counsel on preventive health care, and may assist in surgery.
PAs could help alleviate the health-care crisis in the province, particularly in the rural communities that have been among the hardest hit.
“Some of the comments that (health minister) Adrian Dix made in health (budget) estimates on April 26 and 27 to Shirley Bond (opposition critic on health for BC United and MLA for Prince George- Valemount) and Sonia Furstenau (BC Green Party leader) indicate as much,” said Lisa Stewart, B.C. director of the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants. “I do believe there has been a lot of outside pressure and forces influencing, or at least causing him to respond with a little bit more openness. Definitely, the door has been opened, and we’ve been busy trying to nudge it open further.”
The talks on April 26-27 included physician assistants. At those meetings, Dix confirmed that the licensing and regulation of physician assistants is currently being addressed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC.
“When they (College) get back to the ministry of health, they will revisit it, but the CPSBC, to be honest with you, is saying ‘we are ready. Just give us the green light. Tell us to go,’” said Stewart.
Dr. Heidi Oetter, registrar and CEO of CPSBC, confirmed that they are in the early stages of policy work with the ministry of health on this matter.
Paul Adams, executive director of the BC Rural Health Network, has been working with communities seeking the integration of physician assistants into their health-care services. He acknowledged the limited availability of PAs but emphasized their readiness to work in under-resourced areas.
“Thirty or 40 PAs could significantly impact both primary and acute care provision in several locations,” said Adams. “Adding trained resources that are ready to deploy, especially those that are keen to work in smaller and more remote locations, just makes sense.”
Stewart said that while there is still a lot of work to do, the latest developments are encouraging.
“Like I said, that door has been cracked open… now we can keep the conversation going. It’s not a matter of ‘should PAs be B.C. now - it’s a matter of ‘when.’ There’s lots of work to do, but definitely, there is movement, which is really positive.”
Every other province in Canada either currently has PAs within their respective systems, or has a plan in place to introduce them. There are also two new schools being created specifically for physician assistant training.
“The University of Calgary faculty of medicine is developing a program with 40 seats, and Dalhousie University is implementing a program with hopes of their first intake of students this fall, and that will be 20 seats,” said Stewart. “So there is a huge investment across the country. Saskatchewan and Newfoundland & Labrador just made recent announcements, and P.E.I and Quebec have plans in place, they just haven’t made the announcement yet. So B.C. is really the last province to move forward with this.”
The BC Rural Health Network and the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants are both delighted with the initiation of licensing and regulation of PAs and look forward to the progress made toward integrating PAs into the healthcare team in British Columbia.
“Considering national medical staff shortages, adequate care can be practically non-existent in rural and remote areas. This is where PAs can help,” added Stewart.
–with files from the BC Rural Health Network