Newfoundland and Labrador's health minister has directed the province's regional health authorities to recruit more nurse practitioners for primary health care, especially in rural areas, but can't say exactly how many the province needs — or, given the Canada-wide shortage of nurses, where they'll come from.
Tom Osborne said Tuesday morning the province wants to create nurse practitioner-led health clinics and employ them at the 35 collaborative health clinics they're aiming to start up over the next five years.
"We've immediately asked the health authorities to start to increase the number of nurse practitioners in our health-care system," Osborne said Tuesday morning.
The health-care system has been deep in crisis this summer. As many as 125,000 people do not have access to a family doctor, according to polling from the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, and emergency rooms in the province have been facing staff shortages, closures and long wait times for patients.
Yvette Coffey, president of the provincial registered nurses' union, said the lack of access to primary health care is one of the biggest problems in the health-care system.
"It is detrimental to people in the province," she said.
"I hear stories every day about people staying home with chest pain because they know their emergency department is on diversion, they don't want to travel for two hours to another emergency department and they have no primary health-care provider. So we need to get this fixed. We need to get it right."
Osborne said he couldn't say how many nurse practitioners need to be hired or how much it will cost but said the province will be recruiting from Canada, the U.S. and abroad.
"We haven't put a fixed cost on it, and we're not putting a ceiling on it.… But we want to continue to recruit until we fill the positions," Osborne said.
More seats needed in MUN program: union
The College of Registered Nurses of Newfoundland and Labrador, which regulates registered nurses and nurse practitioners, says there are 251 nurse practitioners — who are trained to diagnose and treat illnesses — licensed to work in the province.
There's a need for many more, according to Coffey, who said there are 30 vacancies in Central Health and 60 more needed to work in long-term care, on top of those needed for the proposed 35 new collaborative health clinics.
"We need a lot of nurse practitioners," she said.
To fill the need, she's calling on the provincial government to increase the number of seats in Memorial University's nurse practitioner program, which currently graduates about 12 per year, and to support registered nurses who want to become nurse practitioners with bursaries and educational leave.
"A big ask here is support for nurse practitioner students," said Coffey.
Julie Kane, a U.S.-trained nurse practitioner originally from Newfoundland and Labrador who wants to work on the Bonavista Peninsula, recently told CBC News said she abandoned the province's lengthy double-step licensing process and is instead trying to get licensed in Ontario and then transfer her credentials home.
Osborne said the province needs nurse practitioners like Kane.
"We do want her here, we want her back home, we want her practising in this province," said Osborne.
"If you're a nurse practitioner in Alberta or if you're a doctor in Nova Scotia, we believe you should be able to be a nurse practitioner or a doctor in Newfoundland and Labrador," Osborne said.
Osborne said the same principle should apply to healthcare workers from the United States.
"If you went into a hospital where somebody was licensed and went through the licensure process in the United States, you wouldn't think twice about the standard of care you'd get," he said.
Osborne says the province is talking with the college of registered nurses, and other health-care licensing bodies, to reduce barriers for workers trained elsewhere while maintaining high professional standards.