Growing numbers of physician assistants to ease health care burden in Canada

Posted on August 6, 2009 in Health Debates – NewsCan – Growing numbers of physician assistants to ease health care burden in Canada
August 6, 2009.   By Diana Mehta (CP)

TORONTO — When warrant officer Rob Andersen talks about his profession, it can take a bit of explaining. The 39-year-old is a physician assistant with the Canadian Forces, a profession which until recently has been relatively low key in Canada.

He works under a doctor, but the position is not to be confused with that of a nurse.

A health professional who can further the reach of medical care in a community, physician assistants have worked in large numbers south of the border, but have only recently been gaining visibility at home.
In a national first, Andersen and 22 others from the Canadian Forces physician assistant course at CFB Borden, Ont., were presented with bachelor of science degrees last week.

The course has been training physician assistants for a number of years, but this is the first time its graduates have come out with full training as well as a degree.

While the degrees came from the University of Nebraska, which has a memorandum of understanding with the Borden medical service school, all the students were trained on Canadian soil.

This makes Andersen and his class the first home-grown physician assistants to graduate with university degrees.

Andersen said the B.Sc title helps raise the profile of his line of work, which includes conducting patient interviews, physical examinations and diagnostic or therapeutic interventions. Whether or not the assistants prescribe medication would be up to the supervising doctor.

“I’d rate us as very, very important,” Andersen said. “We can be in places where a physician might not be able to go.”

Master warrant officer Dorothee Paradis, who is the program’s director, said getting the degrees is a big deal.

“That way our PAs will receive recognition and will have a paper to say we’re providing care,” she said.

Paradis, who is a physician assistant herself, said those in her line of work provide another angle of care and shorten exasperating wait times.

While physician assistants have flourished in the U.S. since the 1960s, the field was only recognized as a health profession in Canada in 2003, even though the military had been using physician assistants for many years.

In the civilian sector, Manitoba licensed physician assistants almost 10 years ago, although only a few are found in the province, while Ontario has a pilot project underway to test physician assistants in its health care system.

Universities in both provinces launched physician assistant degree programs last year and will have their first classes of graduates by the summer of 2010.

Sarah Clarke, director of the graduate program at the University of Manitoba, said the degrees have been a long time coming.

“This is a profession that’s going to undergo a lot of growth in this country,” said Clarke. “(The degree) confers legitimacy on a new profession.”

Clarke, who has been a physician assistant for 10 years, said those in her profession free up a doctor’s time for more complex cases.

“A very large percentage of the tasks performed by physicians could be performed equally well by someone with a lower level of training,” she said.

The director of the undergraduate physician assistant program at McMaster University in Hamilton agreed, saying all doctors could benefit from physician assistants.

“A doctor is like a plumber, you can only do one job at a time,” said Dr. John Cunnington. “If you can delegate the work to someone who works with you it’s really a way to increase productivity.”

According to Cunnington, civilian training programs in Canada will do much to expand the country’s health care services without having to increase the number of MDs.

But provincial governments have yet to outline where the newly graduated physician assistants will work, he said.

“I think this is an idea whose time has come,” said Cunnington. “The real question is where does it go from here.”

Ontario’s ministry of health is still collecting data from its pilot project before deciding where to create jobs for the graduates, said ministry spokesman Andrew Morrison.

The development program has moved into its second phase where physician assistants are employed at hospitals, community health centres and other facilities for two years.

“The people that are involved in it characterize it as a success, they are integrating well,” said Morrison.

Alberta and British Columbia are also considering the idea of physician assistants but have yet to move forward on any plans.

For Ian Jones, president of the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants, expanding the number of physician assistants is very important.

A new program for physician assistants set to launch at the University of Toronto next year is just another example of the positive growth Canada is seeing in this field, Jones said.

“Canada right now has more sick people than we have health care providers,” he said. “We need providers that can extend physician services. Physician assistants are a model that works.”
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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