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After 12-year pilot program, physician assistants become permanent at Fredericton hospital

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It’s been a pilot project since 2011, but New Brunswick’s Health Minister Bruce Fitch says physician assistants will now be made permanent at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton.

The aim is to hire enough assistants to serve every emergency department across the province, but Fitch couldn’t give a timeline on when that might be realized.

There are three, with one more being added in a few months, at the Chalmers Hospital.

Physician assistants can assess patients, order tests and review the results, prescribe medications and do sutures, among many other tasks. They can make between $100,000 and $215,000 annually, says physician assistant Kevin Dickson.

They saw more than 7,000 patients at the Chalmers’ ER last year.

Dickson has been advocating for the position for years. He says there are now roughly 1,000 across Canada, but it’s taken time to get people familiar with it.

“I think honestly, it took this long to really sort of get people comfortable with the idea,” he said. “It is kind of a foreign concept. There aren't that many of us here.”

Physician assistant Kevin Dickson is pictured. (Laura Brown/CTV Atlantic)

He said two years ago there were three Canadian post-secondary programs, with an annual output of 89 students.

But Dalhousie University is launching a program in January 2024 with the goal of graduating 20-to-25 a year. Right now, there are seven physician assistants working in Nova Scotia.

Dickson says they’ve had some success recruiting from the United States, where there are more than 200,000 physician assistants.

“This is about the patients. And the patients have needs and they're not being met by the current workforce of physicians and nurse practitioners. And it's not an individual skill problem, it's a numbers problem. We need more skilled providers,” he said.

It’s a position that’s very familiar to those who’ve spent time in the military.

“I saw it firsthand. When I left the military, I went into rural medicine. So I went out to Minto-Chipman, where we had a hospital that was open 24/7. And I can remember after my first weekend shift, I forget how many patients I saw, but I said to my one of my colleagues, 'if I was in the military, I might have seen 25 per cent of those patients. The physician assistant would have handled the rest.' And I said, 'I don't quite get why we haven't addressed that in the civilian world,'” said Dr. Wayne MacDonald, who’s a former chief medical officer of health in the province.

Dickson would like to see another 20-to-5 added in hospitals across the province. Fitch says the numbers will depend on the upcoming budget process.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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