Rural health-care advocacy group asks for physician assistants in B.C.

A network of B.C. rural health-care advocates says approving physician assistants could help with staffing challenges. (Shutterstock - image credit)
A network of B.C. rural health-care advocates says approving physician assistants could help with staffing challenges. (Shutterstock - image credit)

An advocacy group dedicated to rural health care in B.C. is adding its voice to a growing chorus calling on the province to bring in physician assistants to alleviate the burden on the health-care system.

It comes after a year of emergency room closures, primarily in rural B.C., that the province has attributed to staff shortages, driven by waves of sick leaves and more lasting staff retention issues, as well as the spread of COVID-19 and high levels of respiratory illness.

Physician assistants, which are operating in several other provinces, have been proposed as a way to quickly increase B.C.'s health-care workforce.

Working under doctors, physician assistants are able to conduct patient interviews and exams, write prescriptions and assist in surgery. Unlike nurse practitioners, they do not practise independently.

Paul Adams, the executive director of the advocacy group Rural Health Network, says they would fit well into a team-based approach to health care, which he says would solve many of the problems plaguing rural communities.

"We have seen a reluctance to license physician assistants, and we're looking for clarity as to why that would be," he told CBC News. "It seems that there is strong support from a lot of the entities who would be working with physician assistants in the field."

Adams says that the range of health-care staffing initiatives announced in the latest budget were welcome but that he hoped the province would enhance their workforce with the addition of physician assistants.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

He also says many of the staffing initiatives — including commitments to license more foreign-trained physicians and nurses — are long term.

With physician assistants, who have a shortened training time frame of two years, Adams says the province has an opportunity to get more workers in.

"It's a very difficult situation. If you have a physician leave a team … the entire department has to close," he said. "We just see having more resources, and immediately available resources, as being appropriate in an emergency situation."

Doctors, other parties in support

Both opposition parties in B.C. — the B.C. Green Party and the Liberals — support the concept.

Adams says several members of the Rural Health Network — rural residents and councillors from Fort Nelson, Elkford and New Denver — have expressed interest in having physician assistants work in their communities.

B.C.'s Ministry of Health has previously said it is monitoring the implementation of physician assistants in other provinces.

"Enabling the practice of a new group of health-care practitioners requires careful consideration, management and significant resources to properly understand and address the team function issues that may emerge," a ministry spokesperson said in a statement.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons said in an emailed statement that it would fully support the government if it decided to introduce physician assistants to B.C.