Why does BC not have Physician Assistants in its healthcare system while other provinces do?

Physician assistants work in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, while Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are conducting pilots - but not in British Columbia (Shutterstock - photo credit)

Physician assistants work in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, while Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are conducting pilots – but not in BC (Shutterstock – photo credit)

Amid a serious shortage of medical workers, British Columbia residents have been urging the province to capitalize on the role of physician assistants for the past year.

However, the provincial government has said it has no plans to include these workers in the healthcare system.

BC’s Liberal faction first asked the NDP government last May to allow medical assistants to work in the province. They renewed their appeal in a letter in January.

Port Hardy doctor Alex Natoros has in recent months publicly championed physician assistants who would help him tend to the community’s understaffed emergency room.

Mike McArthur/CBC

Mike McArthur/CBC

Last week, Natoros was suspended from emergency room work after Island Health received complaints about the quality of its care.

What is a medical assistant?

A physician assistant is a medical professional who works under the supervision of a physician. Although they do not have a medical degree, they are trained through a two-year graduate program using the same medical model used to train physicians.

Physician assistants can work in any clinical setting and perform a wide range of services, including conducting patient interviews and physical exams, performing diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, prescribing most medications, ordering and reading tests, and writing referrals under supervision a doctor.

These assistants work with different degrees of autonomy, which are specified individually in their contract.

How do they work in other provinces?

Medical assistants are currently deployed in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick Nova Scotia and Newfoundland ongoing pilot projects.

According to the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants, approximately 800 physician assistants work across Canada, mostly in Manitoba.

A recent survey conducted by the association found that 15 percent of those 800 members said they would like to work in BC

Also, about 120 students are currently enrolled in physician assistant programs, the CAPA website notes.

Three programs in the country train physician assistants: the University of Manitoba, the University of Toronto, and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

The Canadian Armed Forces also use medical assistants on their bases, in the field, and on their ships and submarines.

Manitoba has used medical assistants throughout the healthcare system since 2003.

“The strategic deployment and placement of [physician assistants] can lead to cost savings and improved access to health services, which is why Manitoba has integrated these professionals into our provincial health workforce plan,” Manitoba’s Shared Health wrote in a statement to CBC.

Physician assistants in Manitoba work in a range of settings including but not limited to surgery, family medicine, oncology, pediatrics, mental health and emergency rooms.

Why aren’t they used in BC?

BC does not currently have licensed physician assistants or post-secondary programs to provide the necessary training.

BC’s Department of Health says it is overseeing the introduction of physician assistants in other provinces.

“Enabling the practice of a new group of healthcare professionals requires careful thought, management and significant resources to properly understand and address the team function issues that may arise,” the ministry wrote in an emailed statement.

The province recently introduced the role of associate physician: individuals who have medical degrees from international institutions and previous practice experience, but have not yet become a licensed physician in Canada.

Health authorities examine their competences on a case-by-case basis and decide on the scope of their measures based on their specific experience and qualifications.


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