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Nurse practitioners play a critical role in Island health care

Talking Health - Marilyn BarrettAn important partnership continues to evolve in health care on Prince Edward Island. Increased collaboration between physicians and nurse practitioners is making health care more accessible to Islanders and allowing doctors to make the best possible use of their training and experience.

Nurse practitioners (NPs) have been part of primary health care on the Island since legislation took effect in February 2006. NPs are registered nurses  who possess the competencies to  assess, diagnose and treat common acute and chronic health conditions. They can order tests, prescribe treatments and medications, and make referrals to other health care professionals.  Their additional education and experience uniquely positions them to function both independently and collaboratively in a variety of settings across the continuum of care.

NPs have taken on a larger role in Island health care since the creation of Primary Care Networks during the past two years. A typical Primary Care Network has family physicians, a nurse practitioner, nurses, allied health professionals and administrative support working together to assure that all Islanders are within 30 kilometers of a primary health centre site.

There are five Primary Care Networks on Prince Edward Island: West Prince, East Prince, Queens West, Queens East, and Kings. Nurse practitioner positions exist in four of those five networks – one in Kings, one vacancy in Queens East, two in Queens West, and one in East Prince in Summerside.

NP services help to improve access to health services, reduce wait times and alleviate pressures
on the health-care system by providing clients with diagnosis and curative interventions, wellness strategies and early interventions. NPs provide client education, support health promotion, involve clients in care and follow practice guidelines. They also can perform annual health exams and order blood work for routine screenings. With such a broad skill set, nurse practitioners are a vital health resource for Islanders.

Further,  NPs allow physicians to work to their full scope by allowing the physicians to focus on the work only they can do. For example, a primary care NP could treat common acute and chronic health conditions like bladder infections, sore throats, adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure.  If a patient experienced urinary tract infection symptoms, a nurse practitioner could order a urine sample and prescribe medication to treat the infection if necessary.

Although NPs are qualified to perform many tasks that physicians perform, they are not intended to replace doctors or any other health professionals. NPs regularly consult with their collaborating physician when they encounter a condition that is beyond their scope of practice, and doctors still maintain overall responsibility for their patients.

To find a Primary Care Network that has seen success from implementing the nurse practitioner role, you need to look no farther than Central Queens Health Centre or Eastern Kings Health Centre.  Janet Loo and Sherri McKinnon work collaboratively with physicians, nurses and allied health professionals.  Patients in both networks benefit from improved access to primary care; in addition to providing excellent primary health care, these NPs are able to provide walk in services, back up physicians when they are away, and contribute to the overall health of the communities they serve.

In addition to primary health care NPs, there also are specialty NPs whose training allows them to provide advanced nursing care in acute care settings like oncology, cardiology and neonatology. A full-time specialty nurse practitioner now works at the Prince Edward Island Cancer Treatment Centre at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, signaling the entry of NPs into acute care settings on the Island.

As more nurse practitioners are integrated into the Island health system with success, more Islanders can expect to get the right care, at the right place, by the right provider.

Marilyn Barrett is director of Primary Care Networks for Health PEI.  She can be reached at 569-7640 or by e-mail at Talking Health is a monthly column about the Prince Edward Island health system offered by Health PEI. 

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