Physician assistants (PAs) have become integral providers in the healthcare system. But what exactly is a PA and why are they so vital?
This article will explain what physician assistants do, their role and responsibilities, why the career is growing so rapidly, and the many benefits PAs bring to healthcare teams and patient care.
What is a Physician Assistant?
A physician assistant is a licensed medical professional who has completed an accredited PA educational program and passed the national certifying exam.
PAs practice medicine as part of a healthcare team under the supervision of a physician. They are able to:
- Take medical histories
- Conduct physical exams
- Diagnose and treat illnesses
- Order and interpret tests
- Counsel patients on preventive care
- Assist in surgery
- Prescribe medications in most states
In many ways, PAs function like physicians and help expand access to high-quality medical care.
PA Education and Training
To become a certified PA, candidates must complete extensive education and clinical training:
Bachelor’s degree – Most PA programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree with coursework in biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and statistics.
PA school – PA education includes 24-27 months of graduate-level training at an accredited program. Students take advanced medical science courses and participate in clinical rotations.
Certification – After graduating, PAs must pass the national certifying exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.
State licensure – Passing the exam allows PAs to apply for and obtain state licensure to legally practice.
Continuing education – Ongoing learning and recertification every 10 years is required to stay current on medical advancements.
This rigorous education ensures PAs are fully prepared for clinical practice.
Roles and Responsibilities of a PA
The responsibilities of a PA depend partially on their specialty but typically include:
Taking medical histories – Interviewing patients about symptoms, health concerns, medications, and medical history.
Performing physical exams – Checking vital signs, listening to heart and lungs, palpating the abdomen, testing reflexes, and looking in ears, throat, and nose.
Diagnosing conditions – Based on patient presentation and symptoms, determining the most likely diagnoses.
Ordering and interpreting tests – Requesting needed lab work, imaging, specialty consults, and other diagnostics then analyzing results.
Developing treatment plans – Creating customized evidence-based treatment plans for patients which may include medications, therapy, surgery, or lifestyle changes.
Providing treatments – Administering immunizations, injections, wound care, casts, sutures, and other treatments.
Assisting in surgery – Serving as first or second assist in surgical procedures.
Prescribing medications – Writing prescriptions for medications patients need within their legal scope of practice.
Educating patients – Explaining diseases, treatment options, how to take medications properly, and preventive care recommendations.
Following up – Seeing patients for follow up visits to monitor conditions, treatment efficacy, medication effects, and any complications.
Documenting care – Recording detailed patient encounter notes, updating medical records, and completing required paperwork.
PA responsibilities span the full spectrum of healthcare services, from initial evaluation to ongoing care and treatment.
PA Practice Settings
The versatile PA role allows them to practice in diverse medical settings across virtually all specialties:
- Emergency rooms
- Physician offices and clinics
- Urgent care centers
- Nursing homes and long-term care facilities
- Retail health clinics
- Community health centers
- Rural health clinics
- College and school health
- Surgical centers
- Public health departments
Common PA specialties include:
- Family medicine
- Emergency medicine
- General surgery
PAs bring their advanced medical skills to serve patients in every community.
Why are PAs So Important in Healthcare?
There are several key reasons physician assistants have become integral providers:
PAs Increase Access to Care
A predicted doctor shortage combined with millions more Americans gaining insurance means provider supply isn’t meeting demand. As fully licensed medical practitioners, PAs can help fill this gap. Their skills allow them to diagnose, treat, and monitor patients like physicians do. Having PAs provides more appointment availability and expands access.
PAs Lower Healthcare Costs
Utilizing PAs allows healthcare facilities to reduce costs while maintaining high quality care. On average, it costs 20-25% less to employ a PA versus a doctor. PAs also order fewer expensive diagnostic tests and prescribe generic options more frequently. Facilities can serve more patients and accept more insurance plans when PAs offset expenses.
PAs Provide Exceptional Care
Despite less training, research consistently shows PAs perform at the same level as physicians when it comes to quality metrics like prescribing patterns, readmission rates, patient outcomes and satisfaction. They provide complete care and spend more time per patient. The PA model itself fosters excellent communication and coordination within the medical team.
PAs Increase Patient Satisfaction
Surveys demonstrate patients are highly satisfied with the care provided by PAs. Their comprehensive medical knowledge is combined with a warm beside manner focused on listening and educating. Many patients appreciate having a consistent PA overseeing their care. Positive experiences build loyalty and trust.
PAs Serve in Underserved Areas
With expanding autonomy, PAs can help meet needs in rural and urban areas lacking adequate medical providers. Their advanced capabilities allow them to diagnose and treat patients comprehensively without requiring a physician on site full time. PAs also bring healthcare directly to schools, homeless shelters, prisons, and other settings.
The versatility, skills, and cost-effectiveness of PAs make them essential for providing quality comprehensive care and meeting growing access demands.
Benefits of Working with PAs
Using PAs in medicine has many benefits for patients, providers, facilities, and the broader healthcare system:
- Increased access to timely appointments
- Affordable quality medical care
- Personalized prevention and treatment plans
- Education about health conditions
- Care coordination and follow up
- Increased patient capacity and revenue
- Shared workload and ability to focus on complex cases
- More efficient workflows and patient hand-offs within the care team
- Opportunity to mentor future medical providers
For healthcare facilities
- Expanded services at lower cost
- Increased patient volume and revenue
- Improved efficiency and productivity
- High revenues from PA-performed procedures
- Greater flexibility in staffing
For the healthcare system
- Expanded access to care without sacrificing quality
- Effective medical service delivery model
- Help in addressing cost andaccess crises
- Aid for physician shortages, especially in underserved areas
- Valuable provider workforce that improves outcomes
PAs are an asset to patients, physicians, practices, and populations through their skills, teamwork, and high-value care delivery.
Why Become a PA?
Not only are PAs integral providers – being a PA is an extremely rewarding career path. Here are some top reasons to pursue this profession:
- Make a direct difference in patients’ lives
- Practice medicine as part of a collaborative team
- Use your medical knowledge and skills to diagnose and treat
- Flexibility to change specialties
- High job satisfaction and sense of purpose
- Upward career mobility and leadership opportunities
- Above average compensation with potential to earn over $120K
- Job stability with excellent growth projections
- Ability to help increase healthcare access and quality
The PA career lets you fully utilize your medical capabilities in a supportive team environment while earning an excellent living.
PA Career Outlook
The PA occupation is one of the fastest growing in healthcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
PA job growth is projected at 31% between 2020-2030, more than 4 times the national average for other occupations.
This translates to an increase of over 40,000 new PA jobs in the next decade.
Shortages across medical and surgical specialties are driving massive PA demand.
Clinical settings nationwide are actively recruiting PAs through increased salaries and benefits.
Almost all indicators point to a booming job market for certified PAs now and in the future. PA programs graduate around 10,000 new PAs annually – still far below market demand.
For those interested in a career as a medical provider, becoming a PA offers tremendous opportunities for job stability, flexibility, earning potential, and the immense rewards of caring for patients.
Conclusion – Why PAs Are Critical Healthcare Providers
Physician assistants are highly skilled medical professionals who provide a scope of services similar to physicians. Their capabilities allow them to prevent, diagnose, and treat illness alongside physician-led healthcare teams.
The PA career is growing at unprecedented rates because they
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