Island Health hiring physician assistant at Saanich Peninsula Hospital under new provincial pilot project


Island Health has posted a job, the first of its kind in a B.C. hospital, aimed at helping ease some of the pressures at Saanich Peninsula Hospital.

The health authority is working with 24/7 Occupational & Emergency Medicine Solutions to hire a physician assistant (PA).

“Clearly, Saanich Peninsula Hospital needs some support and the doctors in the emergency rooms need some support, and so this is a good announcement,” said Adam Olsen, Saanich North and the Islands MLA.

A PA is a health professional who can practice medicine under a doctor’s supervision.

The Canadian Association of Physician Assistants (CAPA) said this means PAs can see patients, do an assessment, start a treatment plan, order interventions and prescribe medications.

“Physician assistants are sort of an untapped resource that B.C. hasn’t leaned into yet,” said Lisa Stewart, CAPA’s B.C. director.

“By bringing physician assistants to the province we allow more patients to be seen, we allow them to be seen in a quicker amount of time.”

On X, formerly known as Twitter, she called the job posting a monumental moment.

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The Ministry of Health is licensing the position under a pilot project to relieve some of the strain on the current health-care system.

The first posting is at Saanich Peninsula Hospital emergency room because it has been dealing with ongoing overnight ER closures since last summer.

READ MORE: Overnight closure at Saanich Peninsula Hospital emergency department to continue

Health Minister Adrian Dix told CHEK News Tuesday the PA pilot will only be hiring positions in the ER to start as there are a limited amount of trained PAs in the province.

“Saanich Peninsula Hospital will be the first to hire one which is really significant for the people in that community, but also for Vancouver Island,” Dix explained.

According to Stewart, there are currently about 30 PAs living in B.C., but only 13 of them are working in the province full-time.

She said those 13 work with the Canadian Armed Forces and have been using PAs for about 50 years.

“The remaining 17 that live here, they actually commute to work in other places. Some are American PAs that commute to work down in Washington, some work in remote locations in the territories, so they have to fly in and out,” Stewart added.

“There are other PAs, due to family constraints, aren’t working as physician assistants but maybe they are supporting health care in another way.”

Dix said the pilot will start in Central Saanich, but there is hope to expand the program to ERs across the province.

Stewart said she would love to see the pilot expanded beyond emergency rooms and into sectors like primary care, specialty roles and surgical roles.

“The possibilities are endless for PAs, and so I see this role growing into these other areas of medicine,” she explained.

Dix explained the only problem with being able to expand the program is there is no place to train PAs in the province.

“That is one of the issues we are looking at,” Dix added.

Local reaction

Two ER doctors at Saanich Peninsula Hospital told CHEK News the new role is very exciting news.

Dr. Paeta Lehn, medical lead for the nascent PA program, said not only will this move enhance patient’s access to quality care, they will also alleviate strain on the emergency department.

“The versatility of PAs allows them to adapt to diverse patient needs and clinical scenarios encountered in emergency medicine,” Lehn said in a statement.

“From initial evaluation and stabilization to ongoing management and discharge planning, they work diligently to ensure seamless transitions and promote continuity of care for patients, thereby enhancing overall health-care quality, patient and health care worker satisfaction.”

Emergency room physician Dr. Jeff Unger said rapidly escalating patient demand over the last few years has outstripped physical space and human resource capabilities at the hospital.

“With our health care system in crisis on innumerable fronts, the addition of PAs into the B.C. health care system, finally, is incredibly important,” Unger said.

He explained this addition with unfortunately not allow the Saanich Peninsula Hospital’s emergency room to 24 hours a day right away.

“The PA pilot will begin with daytime care and likely will take several months to assess its impacts,” Unger said.

Dix said the pilot program is not a solution by itself to the challenges in team based care.

“In that community it’s more about ensuring that we have enough doctors in both the community and at the hospital,” he said.

Unger told CHEK News the PA pilot program will hopeful begin in April.

Mackenzie Read

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