She’s part of a new trend in the province, and one-of-a-kind here in Merritt.

Julia Walker has set up shop as Merritt’s first nurse practitioner and has just started seeing patients.

As a nurse practitioner, Walker is qualified to do most of what a family doctor does.

She maintains her own practice and patients, makes diagnoses, orders lab tests, refers patients to specialists, admits them to hospital and prescribes medication.

A family doctor still has a broader scope of practice, but a nurse practitioner also works with doctors, Walker said.

“If somebody comes in and I have a question about something that I’m not familiar with, then I can call one of the doctors in town and we can manage the patient together or that doctor could assume responsibility of the patient,” Walker said.

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with additional education at the masters degree level who provide primary care, chronic disease care, disease prevention and health promotion.

“The role of the nurse practitioner was implemented here [in Merritt] to basically try to see patients that don’t already have a family physician,” Walker said.

Although working out of the Conayt Friendship Society building in downtown Merritt, Walker is an Interior Health Authority (IHA) employee, and is available to all Merrittonians.

Nurse practitioners are a means to improve health services by mitigating the shortage of primary health care providers, especially in rural places, Walker said.

She said her focus is on providing care to low income and marginalized individuals.

Walker also plans to bring health services to people who live outside of Merritt on reserves.

Having Walker in place should take some of the stress off the Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency room, as Walker can address essentially all health concerns that are not emergencies.

Walker handles patients with issues such as cold and flu-like symptoms, urinary tract infections, and chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and depression — to name a few.

She also provides education on pre-natal care, and can assist people with weight loss or quitting smoking.

On a given day, Walker will see about 15 patients.

Even if Walker can’t treat the health issue, she has the ability and resources to help people access the appropriate sources.

Originally from Prince George, Walker completed her schooling to become a registered nurse at the University of Northern BC (UNBC) in 2007 and began working in Victoria and Prince George.

She then decided to go back to school and complete a masters of nursing in the nurse practitioner program at UNBC, graduating this year.

Walker said she decided to go back to school and become a nurse practitioner to better serve people.

Nurse practitioners require six years of school to earn their degrees.

No nurse practitioner has ever served this community, but this type of work is also relatively new in B.C.

Nurse practitioners were only licensed starting in 2005, and at the moment B.C. has 341 nurse practitioners that have been registered by the College of Registered Nurses of B.C. There are 40 working across the IHA.

The B.C. government announced nearly $15 million in funding for 135 new nurse practitioner jobs back in 2012 over the next three years, but so far only 121 of those positions have been filled through that funding.

Walker was one of the nurse practitioners hired thanks to this funding.

Walker, who currently lives in West Kelowna, works in Merritt Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

She invites residents to visit her with any questions or concerns, even if they don’t have a specific medical issue.

“My goal is to be more involved in the community, so that people feel comfortable coming to me and talking to me about things or asking for things,” Walker said.

She can be contacted at 250-378-5107.