Politicians, pundits and Nova Scotians at large are understandably preoccupied with budgetary issues in health care.
With the recent expiration of the Canada Health Accord, Nova Scotia stands to lose more than $902 million dollars in funding over the next 10 years.
Maintaining quality health care is going to take innovation on many fronts. One essential shift is ensuring that we maximize the (evidence-based) scope of our various health providers. Nurses and pharmacists, for example, can deliver flu shots and vaccinations, freeing up physicians’ time for performing advanced diagnoses, assessments and surgeries.
Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are self-regulated under the College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia, and are able to practice independently of and in collaboration with other health professionals. NPs do not replace physicians, but they can help free up their time to deal with more complex cases. NP’s order and interpret diagnostic tests like MRIs, prescribe pharmaceuticals and make referrals. Starting Nov. 1, 2014, NPs in Nova Scotia will be able to prescribe narcotics and other controlled drugs. There are plenty of avenues for further growth. Ontario, for example, has opened more than 25 NP-led clinics since 2009, improving access to primary health care for families across the province. There is no reason we could not replicate this successful and cost-effective model in Nova Scotia.
NPs reduce wait times by allowing physicians to focus on more complex cases. NPs also improve treatment in long-term care homes and reduce the need to transfer residents to emergency rooms. What is more, research shows that the increased use of NPs is extremely cost-effective in the provision of primary health-care services. In the United States, studies have shown that NP-managed practices had costs 23 per cent lower than those run by other providers, with 21per cent fewer hospitalizations. In long-term care, research shows that every dollar spent on NPs results in several dollars saved on physician treatment for serious conditions.
None of this diminishes the invaluable role of our physicians. Our nurses, including nurse practitioners, are proud to work alongside the many skilled physicians we have in this province. We should be looking to optimize their role as our most highly trained health professionals.
NPs will improve our health care system and can save Nova Scotia millions of dollars a year. We already have the facilities and the training program in place at Dalhousie University. Our challenge now is to ensure we make effective use of NPs for the benefit of both patients and the province’s coffers.
Janet Hazelton, is the president, Nova Scotia Nurses' Union and Dawn M. Lowe is the past executive co-chairwoman of the Nurse Practitioners’ Association of Nova Scotia.