Officials ponder easing mobility for doctors, nurses between provinces

HALIFAX — Efforts to create regional licensing for health care professionals in Atlantic Canada could be the vanguard for similar changes nationally, a leading advocate says.

The four East Coast premiers called this week for common licensing for doctors, nurses and other health professionals, saying allowing them to easily move between provinces would improve people’s access to care.

The registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Newfoundland and Labrador, Dr. Linda Inkpen, said work has actually been underway for a year to align licensing regimes in Atlantic Canada.

Inkpen, who is also president of the Federation of Medical Regulatory Authorities of Canada, said the regional work is an offshoot of an issue that has been on the national radar for at least a decade as issues around internal trade gained prominence.

She said the issue has gained added impetus over the last few years.

“Anything that we can do that enhances mobility of our physicians helps directly and indirectly the public and the patients whom we exist to serve,” said Inkpen.

At the national level, Inkpen said ongoing talks have been focused on two areas — the streamlining of regular licensing for fully licensed doctors with no disciplinary history, and to help free up locum physicians, who move from province-to-province for fill-in work.

“We are hopeful … that we will have come to an agreement if not in all colleges across Canada, certainly in some colleges, so that we can make that process a little easier for our physicians,” she said.

Inkpen concedes it will take longer to get some form of agreement nationally, however, she believes something can be in place in Atlantic Canada sooner.

“It’s going to take a little bit longer but we are talking months, we’re not talking years,” she said. “We are talking I would say within 12 months.”

The national work is more complicated and will require “more than the colleges to sort it out” Inkpen said. She said provinces and territories will need to get more involved, because colleges are governed by 13 different pieces of legislation.

Atlantic Canada’s premiers want to see movement to improve mobility across a range of professions.

But they believe it’s especially important for health care workers such as doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physiotherapists, given the region faces challenges posed by an aging population and higher-than-average incidences of chronic diseases.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said it’s part of the puzzle to improve access to primary care in his province, where many people don’t have a family doctor.

“One of the biggest complaints that we’ve heard around the whole process is how difficult it is to be allowed to practice in the province,” he said. “We want to provide some consistency within the region, and I would argue once we are able to do that it will probably go national.”

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses Union, said she has talked to a nurse in Alberta who wants to move east, but has been waiting for three months for a temporary licence.

“I’m not sure why sometimes it takes so long,” said Hazelton of the time period it can take to work in another province.

She points to Ontario, where she says registered nurses are currently being laid off.

“They are laying off registered nurses and we (Nova Scotia) can’t hire enough. But if it’s going to take them three months to get a licence then that’s a deterrent.”

She said harmonized and streamlined licensing would also help nurses who live in border areas and have to pay twice if they want to work in both provinces: “That’s a lot of money.”

Dr. Sheila Marchant-Short, registrar for the College of Registered Nurses of Prince Edward Island, said the issue has the attention of national nursing bodies, and there are “certainly benefits to figuring something out.”

“As an Atlantic group we haven’t had a really fulsome discussion yet,” she said. “So we will in a response to the Atlantic premiers, but we aren’t there yet.”

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