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Number of physician assistants rising, PA association says

The number of physician assistants (PA) working in Canada has undergone a “dramatic increase,” the president of the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants (CAPA) says.

“I have had the opportunity to see the profession develop,” Chris Rhule writes in a president’s message on the association’s website. “[It has grown] from only one PA working in cardiac surgery in Manitoba to upwards of 400 PAs currently working across Canada in a variety of specialties. This is a dramatic increase in a short time and something we should be proud of.”

Rhule has witnessed all of this growth, because in 2003 he became the first PA licensed to practise in Canada

Canada’s PAs fill a variety of roles, from providing emergency room care to assisting orthopedic surgeons in the OR. Many are in uniform, with the Canadian Forces employing about 120 of them at its bases across Canada. Civilian PAs are most common in Ontario and Manitoba, with small numbers employed in Alberta and New Brunswick. No other provinces currently employ them.

Winnipeg, where Rhule is director of the PA program for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority (WRHA), has seen particularly strong growth. About 100 PAs are now employed there, and the WRHA is looking for more.

The authority’s website says the WRHA is seeking “motivated and experienced PAs that are looking to challenge themselves to a rewarding career. Join our tight-knit group of PAs that is trailblazing the profession in the only province in Canada where there are regulations allowing full scope of practice [and where] PAs have been extremely well accepted into every aspect of the health care community. This is evidenced by the rapid growth of PA practice opportunities in the WRHA.”

The profession’s growth has had an impact on CAPA — its membership recently passed the 500 mark — and on Canada’s universities, four of which are now involved in training approximately 160 students at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Canada currently produces about 85 new PAs annually, including about 20 trained through the Canadian Forces.

The CMA, which co-sponsored the country’s first national meeting on physician assistants in 2005, has been a strong supporter of their “physician extender” role. This sees them work under a physician’s supervision to provide care, conduct patient interviews, take patient histories, prescribe some drugs and order some tests.

At its 2007 annual meeting, the CMA’s General Council called for development of a plan “to enable the further expansion and integration of physician assistants into health care in Canada.”

PAs are also cited in the CMA’s Principles for Health Care Transformation, which calls for development of a new national health human resources plan that would “introduce new providers such as physician assistants to the health care workforce.”

Forward any comments about this article to: cmanews@cma.ca.