The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey found that 88 per cent of respondents would be comfortable being treated by a nurse practitioner at a walk-in clinic. And 74 per cent said the same about having their regular physical done by a nurse practitioner.
Nurse practitioners have more qualifications than a nurse and can diagnose patients, as well as provide some treatment, refer people for testing and prescribe some medication.
"People have a lot of trust in nurses and recognize that many, many nurses are very knowledgeable about the kind of day-to-day types of issues that many people come to their doctor to check on - just doing the physical, or 'My kid's got a cold or the flu or something, what do I do?"' said Jeff Walker, Harris-Decima's senior vice-president.
"I think there's a recognition that you don't always need to see a doctor for some of those kinds of things."
The survey found that one in five respondents reported having been treated by a nurse practitioner, although Walker acknowledged some may not have known whether the person treating them had the exact credentials.
There are nurse practitioners across the country, but more in some provinces than others. For instance, there are only 72 nurse practitioners in Manitoba, but upwards of 1,300 in Ontario, according to associations representing the profession.
"It may be they have some blurriness about whether a person is officially defined as a nurse practitioner or not," Walker noted.
"But I think that the case really is that people recalled a circumstance where they basically were treated by the nurse. The doctor didn't really do anything - maybe didn't even see them at a clinic."
Seventy-two per cent of respondents said the role of the nurse practitioner should be expanded in Canada, while 22 per cent said it should remain the same. Only four per cent felt they should play a smaller role.
Eighty per cent of those surveyed said they thought that expanding the role of nurse practitioners would be an effective way of helping to manage the costs of health care.
Laura Ferguson, co-chair of the Nurse Practitioner Association of Manitoba, works in the emergency department at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.
She says her patients are very accepting. In fact, in a five-year period, she's only had a couple of people comment that they wanted to see a physician instead.
"People are thankful that somebody is seeing them, somebody is listening to them, somebody is doing something for them," she said.
She tends to a "full gamut" of people who arrive in the emergency department.
"More or less your walking wounded - so they could be anywhere from somebody who needed a stitch to somebody who thinks they broke their ankle to somebody who might think they have an ear infection, a pneumonia, an asthma flare-up, whatever," she explained.
By filling that role, she frees up physicians to focus on the more acutely ill patients. There's more than enough work to go around, and it does save money, Ferguson said.
"Certainly I don't do exactly the same job as an emergency physician, but I do quite a significant amount of the same, and when you compare salaries from one to the next, they're not even in the same league," she said.
"So I think it does save the system money."
Ferguson, who also teaches at the University of Manitoba, said 12 more people will graduate next year, but there are "little to no jobs for them to come to."
"If you want to expand the program you need to put the dollars in there to be able to fund positions."
Jane Sanders, executive director of the Nurse Practitioners' Association of Ontario, said she's not surprised by the survey's finding and noted the literature on patient satisfaction with nurse practitioners is very strong.
The province passed legislation in 1998 to regulate the profession, and there is a demand, she said.
"I get a call at least once a day from somebody who says 'help me find an NP ... how come I can't find an NP in my community?"'
Sanders said a nurse practitioner clinic established in Sudbury, Ont., in November 2007 has six NPs, two doctors and more than 2,000 patients.
"All the patients they've taken on previously didn't have a primary care provider. So they've taken on patients (who are) generally older, lots of chronic diseases, and many who've not seen a health-care professional in five, 10 years," she said.
"They're so excited to have access to care, and that's a great success story in this province."
Fri Aug 14, 6:01 PM
By Anne-Marie Tobin, The Canadian Press