The Alberta government plans to spend an extra $3 million this year on nurse practitioners for underserved areas, particularly in rural and remote regions.
The plan, announced Sept. 17, will see an additional 30 nurses work in primary care networks and medical clinics in communities where family doctors are scarce or hard to access.
The funding follows an election-platform commitment from the United Conservative Party, which promised it wanted to hire more nurse practitioners.
“Nurse practitioners are valuable, skilled health-care professionals, and we look forward to working with them to strengthen our publicly funded health system,” said health minister Tyler Shandro during a news conference.
Nurse practitioners are able to diagnose patients in the community, provide annual checkups, order tests and prescribe medications.
They generally work with people in underserved communities, helping Indigenous people access care, offering mental health supports and addressing chronic conditions, such as diabetes or cardiac disease.
The nurses have also been hired to work evenings and weekends, which is when medical clinics are traditionally closed. The province said this can help reduce unnecessary visits to the hospital.
Anne Summach, the upcoming vice-president of the Nurse Practitioners Association of Alberta, said she was pleased to see expansion of the nurse practitioner roles.
“This announcement also allows Albertans to select the best primary care provider to meet their health needs,” she said.
Recruitment for the nurse practitioners will begin soon.
They will be hired by Aspen Primary Care Network in the Westlock, Alta., area, as well by the Bow Valley Primary Care Network (Canmore and Banff area), the Bonnyville Primary Care Network, the Edmonton Southside Primary Care Network for children in the foster care clinic, and the Sherwood Park-Strathcona County Primary Care Network for people with opioid dependency.
In Bonnyville, for example, the province said there are 600 patients on a waiting list to see a doctor.
In the recent MacKinnon report, which combed through Alberta’s finances and recommended cuts to balance the budget, it was recommended the province restrain spending on health and find other ways to deliver services.
The report recommended private or non-profit clinics could deliver day procedures to reduce wait-times and allow nurse practitioners to perform duties in scope of their practice.
However, Shandro said the province isn’t trying to replace doctors with nurse practitioners.
“I see this as supplementing family physicians in the system,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to be able to add health professionals to a health-care team.”
Nurse practitioners are paid a salary rather than as a fee-for-service that is usually used to pay physicians.
The MacKinnon report recommended changes to physician compensation, suggesting an alternative payment plan is necessary.
If renegotiations for a new plan fails, it said, then legislation should be considered to make changes.