Health PEI says it's hopeful that hiring seven new nurse practitioners will ease the load of family physicians across the province and shorten wait times for Islanders.
The government agency posted the positions late last week. It's looking for nurse practitioners to work alongside doctors and see patients at health centres around the Island including Montague, Alberton, Tyne Valley, Summerside, and Charlottetown.
'If you have a primary care provider but can't get into them, it's not a whole lot different than not having somebody.'
- Marilyn Barrett
"We think this will improve access," said Marilyn Barrett, Health PEI's primary care director.
"If you look at the Montague Health Centre, for instance .... some of the physicians there rotate through the emergency room. So it takes them out of the office. We put a nurse practitioner in there, and it helps increase access for patients."
Marilyn Barrett, Health PEI's primary care director, hopes the addition of seven nurse practitioners around the Island improves access to healthcare for Islanders. (Steve Bruce/CBC)
There are currently 22 nurse practitioners working on the Island, who have masters-level education and are trained to do much of the same work as family physicians.
Most work collaboratively with doctors, and see some of their patients throughout the day. Barrett says four of the nurse practitioners working on P.E.I. have their own clinics.
"[Nurse practitioners] can order diagnostic tests, they can order medications, prescriptions, they do comprehensive assessments, and they're able to refer to specialists," said Barrett.
Barrett said the new hires may free up some physicians to take on new patients. There are currently 8,200 Islanders on a waiting list for a family doctor.
'We do want to stress the importance of continued family physician recruitment, as part of the primary care strategy on P.E.I.'
- Dr. Kristy Newson
She says other Islanders will have an easier time making an appointment at their doctor's office.
"If you have a primary care provider but can't get into them, it's not a whole lot different than not having somebody," said Barrett. "So we're trying to improve that access as well as create capacity for those people unaffiliated."
Barrett says the province is hiring the additional nurse practitioners in part because the 22 nurse practitioners currently working on the Island have had such a positive impact.
As long as doctors aren't being replaced by nurse practitioners, P.E.I.'s College of Family Physicians supports the new hirings. (David Donnelly/CBC)
She says that's been particularly true in communities like Souris.
"We've had a lot of chronic [doctor] vacancies in Souris," she said. "And we've had a stable nurse practitioner there since 2003. So the patients there have always had access even when there wasn't a physician."
Souris loses a family doctor just months after her arrival
P.E.I.'s College of Family Physicians says it supports the new hirings, as long as the nurse practitioners continue to work collaboratively with doctors, not in place of them.
"One can't substitute for the other," said Dr. Kristy Newson, the college's president-elect. "We do want to stress the importance of continued family physician recruitment, as part of the primary care strategy on P.E.I."
Barrett says while P.E.I. can expect to see more nurse practitioner positions added in the future, it's not an effort to replace physicians, and that Health PEI will continue its efforts to recruit physicians.
She says the hope is to have all seven new nurse practitioners hired by the summer.