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Saskatchewan to spend $1.3 million to hire new physician assistants

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government is adding a new medical profession to the mix as part of a plan to reform primary care and reduce wait times. The Saskatchewan Party government announced Thursday it is to spend $1.
A doctor wears a stethoscope around his neck as he tends to patients in his office in Illinois, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The Saskatchewan government says it is adding a new health profession in the province to help with long wait times and stressed hospitals. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeff Roberson

REGINA — The Saskatchewan government is adding a new medical profession to the mix as part of a plan to reform primary care and reduce wait times.  

The Saskatchewan Party government announced Thursday it is to spend $1.3 million to create 12 physician assistant, or PA, jobs.

Health Minister Paul Merriman said they're part of a larger plan that also looks to enhance what nurse practitioners and doctors can offer.  

“We're looking at all of this,” Merriman told reporters. “It’s not just physician assistants, it’s not just nurse practitioners, it’s the suite of primary care. When we look at physician-led primary care, this is a piece that gets it going to take some pressure off.”

Merriman introduced legislation that would regulate PAs under the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan, as well as establish the scope of practice for the new profession. 

PAs must practise under a medical doctor and are allowed to do patient exams, prescribe medication and order and interpret tests. 

Merriman said they will be employed by the Saskatchewan Health Authority and be stationed where “they’re going to be best utilized.” 

Nurse practitioners, or NPs, who are considered more autonomous, can also diagnose and treat illnesses, order tests and prescribe medication. However, they have said previously they are being underutilized. 

A survey conducted last year by the Saskatchewan Association of Nurse Practitioners found 35 per cent of part-time NPs would like to be full-time. Further, 10 per cent said they weren’t employed because jobs weren’t available. A total of 124 responded to the survey. 

Should their scope of practice be expanded, the association has said NPs could help address strains in primary care.

Merriman said he’s having discussions with the group about expanding their scope of practice. 

He said the government is also looking at expanding scope for advanced-care paramedics and pharmacists. 

“We’re not just looking at one way of managing some of the issues that are out there. We're expanding scope, we're bringing new professions,” Merriman said. 

The NDP Opposition has previously asked the government to launch training programs to help NPs professionally develop, particularly in rural areas where they are needed most. 

NDP health critic Vicki Mowat said PAs could be part of the solution to alleviate pressures in primary care. 

However, she said the government needs to implement system-wide change.

“This could be a solution but it’s a Band-Aid solution,” Mowat said. “We need to make sure we have this primary care reform and that we have team-based care. Ultimately, we have a shortage of family physicians in our province and we need people to have access to family medicine.” 

Todd Bryden, the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants director for Saskatchewan, said PAs would be required to follow various competency and safety standards to ensure they are accountable for the care they provide. 

“This is a vital step in effectively introducing PAs into the province at a critical time when the health-care system has been stretched to the limit,” Bryden said in a news release. 

PAs are allowed to work in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick. Traditionally they are employed in doctor offices, community clinics, long-term care homes and hospitals.

To become a PA, someone must first complete two to four years of undergraduate school and then complete a specialized PA program. There are three schools that offer PA programs, including two in Ontario and one in Manitoba.  

Saskatchewan Medical Association president Dr. John Gjevre said the organization is “supportive in principle” of PAs playing a role to complement care. 

“This change will need to be done carefully and thoughtfully, to ensure that it enhances patient care,” he said in a statement. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023. 

The Canadian Press