Flagship clinic to take big bite out of wait list for family docs

If Karen Parker’s numbers hold true, the number of Cochranites waiting in line for a family doctor could be cut by nearly 60 per cent in one fell swoop when her new nurse practitioners clinic opens this spring.

If Karen Parker’s numbers hold true, the number of Cochranites waiting in line for a family doctor could be cut by nearly 60 per cent in one fell swoop when her new nurse practitioners clinic opens this spring.

Parker’s will be the first nurse practitioner clinic to open in Alberta under newly relaxed rules that came into effect when the provincial government announced they were going ahead with an idea that has been brewing for a few years.

In an interview with The Eagle this week, Parker said she’s been researching the clinic idea for about four years. She has met with a number of stakeholders in Cochrane, including the Cochrane and Area Health Foundation, physicians, and Innovate Cochrane.

That research indicated about half of Cochrane residents have no family doctor.

An independently owned and operated nurse practitioner (NP) clinic would provide a new option for publicly funded primary care for those who have not been able to find a family doctor.

New patients would visit the clinic, chose an NP to interview, and then be assigned to the roster for that provider. A family nurse practitioner, so to speak.

Anyone choosing to participate in the clinic would not be able to have a family doctor as well as an NP assigned to them.

Parker said the NPs would have the ability to refer patients to specialists they have good working relationships with, just like family doctors currently do.

When fully operational, with 10 nurse practitioners servicing 1,000 patients each, that could mean 10,000 Cochranites who formerly had no family doctor would have access to a primary health care provider.

Based on the current population of 35,000, Parker’s information points to about 17,500 without a family doctor.

The clinic could hypothetically knock that number down to down to 7,000.

Parker ended the interview with a bold prediction.

“Primary care is the foundation of our health care system. If it is malfunctioning and fragmented, everything collapses on top of it,” she said. “You will see this will be a catalyst for change across Canada.”

A Nurse Practitioner and Co-Founder and Medical Director of Compass Health Services in Calgary, she stepped down from her position as VP and Independent Practice Director for the Nurse Practitioner Association of Alberta the day before the government announced they were going down this path.

She said the Cochrane clinic would be the “Flagship” facility for the province and in some respects, the country, since they would be independently owned and operated, providing government-funded care. (Ontario has some NP clinics, but they are owned by the province).

“You will have more control over accessing health care through appropriate providers,” Parker said in an interview.

“We’ve never had a funding model that would allow us to offer our services to the public the way we can now.”

She has secured a building to lease in the Quarry, and as soon as Alberta Health finalizes the details of the new funding model, Parker can get the renovations started.

She outlined her plans and provided an update to Town of Cochrane Council Jan. 15, calling Cochrane an ideal site for the first clinic.

Some of the factors that make Cochrane ideal are the rate of population growth (which establishes the need) and proximity to Calgary (which means access to other services, and nurse practitioners.)

Parker also summarized the benefits another way.

“This is about your health clinic – it’s not mine. It’s you accessing high level, high quality services, customized to where and when you need it,” she said.

Another benefit would be the new clinic is planning on offering after hours access, including holidays and weekends.

Parker has done a lot of work in a short time, with a clear goal in mind. If everything goes according to plan, she sees clinics opening in Airdrie and Calgary within a year.

One of the distinctions between traditional family doctors and nurse practitioner clinics is the nurse practitioners will be funded by a salary-based model, as opposed to fee-for-service. In that respect, it is somewhat analogous to the primary care network model.

Parker’s presentation was warmly received by council.

“This is great news for Cochrane and much needed,” said Coun. Susan Flowers to kick off the discussion, before Mayor Jeff Genung added his reaction.

“It’s the beginning of a great thing that’s going to happen in our community,” he said. “It’s an exciting transition.”

Vice-chair of the Cochrane and Area Health Foundation Dennis Fundytus is a well-known retired family doctor in Cochrane. He was supportive of improving access to primary care but wanted to see more details.

“There is a need for more primary care providers because we’re short – and we’re short significantly,” he said.

“The big flag for me is, are we in competition with physicians or are we working with physicians?”

“She feels she has those contacts. That will remain to be seen,” he said.

It also remains to be seen, he added, if the new clinic is collaborative and well thought out.

“In the end there’s need, and an accelerating need, for care providers,” he said.

“If the quality of care is as good or better than the other primary care providers then the public will support it,” Fundytus said.

Premier Danielle Smith’s push for more alternatives in providing primary health care got a boost Nov. 22 when the government announced measures “enabling nurse practitioners to open their own clinics, take on patients and offer services based on their scope of practice, training and expertise.”

Typically nurse practitioners can provide about 80 per cent of the medical services a family physician provides, and this will be reflected in the compensation model when it’s finalized.

Nurse practitioners have completed graduate studies and are regulated by the College of Registered Nurses of Alberta. Like other regulated professions, all nurse practitioners must meet minimum requirements to practise and follow standards set by their regulatory college.

“Nurse practitioners are highly trained and valued medical professionals. By enabling them to open their own clinics, we are ensuring Albertans can more easily access the care they need. This is a significant improvement in our primary health care system that will benefit patients and help improve the overall health and health outcomes of Alberta families,” Smith said in the release.


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