Up to 1,200 people in the greater Charlottetown area who are waiting for a doctor will soon be placed with a nurse practitioner as their main point of contact in the health-care system.
Health Minister Doug Currie announced a new, pilot project on Tuesday that will see nurse practitioners take on an independent caseload of patients while still collaborating with a family doctor for issues outside their scope of practice.
Currie says the changes, which will be rolled out early next year, should increase access to health care for all Islanders.
“It is an opportunity for us to use them to their full capacity,” said Currie.
“The focus all falls back to better access and taking pressure off the health-care system.”
There are currently four nurse practitioners working in P.E.I.
The province is hoping to recruit three more. That may further reduce the number of Islanders without a family doctor, which now stands at about 7,500 Islanders.
There are still doctor shortages in Souris, Montague and in West Prince.
The changes announced Tuesday go much further than expanding the role of nurse practitioners.
Optometrists will now be able to provide some services without a referral from a doctor.
Four types of eye care will be covered — screening for eye disease for patients with diabetes and diagnosis and treatment of dry-eye, itchy eye and painless red-eye diseases.
Some audiologists will be able to bill medicare directly, rather than billing the patient, for hearing tests done with a referral.
Currie said this builds on changes already announced for pharmacists, licensed practical nurses and resident care workers.
Pharmacists now have the ability to renew prescriptions when patients are unable to see their doctor, resident care workers are working in hospitals and licensed practical nurses help administer medications and conduct health assessments.
Currie said Islanders can expect more changes as the province looks to expand the use of paramedics in the health-care system.
“This is a huge step forward,” said Currie.
P.E.I., like all other provinces, is struggling to get control of an ever-growing health-care budget.
The Island government is expected to spend nearly $550 million next year on health care alone.
“The goal of a sustainable health system is to ensure timely access to a skilled health professional appropriate for the patient’s medical needs,” said Dr. Richard Wedge, interim CEO of Health P.E.I.
“Enabling our health professionals to make the best use of their training and expertise will further help us to provide Islanders with the right care, by the right provider, and in the right place.”