Friday, November 19, 2010 IS a PA anyway?

I used to wonder the exact same thing.  When I first heard about them, I couldn't understand why someone would go get a master's degree just to be someone's assistant.  Well, the assistant part of physician assistant can be pretty misleading.  While we often do assist (as in the OR or in other procedural manners) we more often act as an "extender."  Let me give you some history:

In 1964 Dr. Eugene Stead expressed the idea of training ex-military corpsmen in a 2-year program to help meet increasing patient care demands.  In 1965 he launched the physician assistant education program at Duke University with 4 ex-Navy corpsmen as the first students.  In 1968 the first baccalaureate program for PAs was founded in West Virginia and the American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is founded in North Carolina.  Importantly, in 1970 the AMA (American Medical Association) House of Delegates passes a resolution recognizing PAs.  In 1972, the George Washington University PA program was established and continues to be one of the best in the nation (not that I'm biased or anything).  In 1973 the first national certifying exam is given to over 800 PA program graduates.  

Okay, so there's the early history.  Over the decades the profession has continued to grow expanding to over 70,000 practitioners in 2008.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the number of PA jobs is expected to increase by 39% by the year 2018.  Now every practicing PA must be licensed by their respective states.  In order to get licensed one must have graduated from an accredited program (with the majority now awarding master's degrees) and pass the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam).  When you see a PA, they will have PA-C behind their name meaning they have passed the PANCE and have maintained that certification by taking the re-certification exam every 6 years.

So, I guess I still haven't really explained what a PA actually DOES...well, hmmm.  I found this quote on the Bureau of Labor Statistics that gives a nice concise explanation:

"PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive healthcare services, as delegated by a physician. Working as members of a healthcare team, they take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and x rays, and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries by suturing, splinting, and casting. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy. Physician assistants also may prescribe certain medications."

So, there you are.  Physician assistants see, interview, examine and treat patients in locations from a family practice office to the operating room to prison infirmaries and everywhere in between.  There are even PAs working in morgues as assistants to medical examiners and PAs on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan!  We are detectives, healers and patient educators.  

When you are making your next appointment at your doctor's office (whether its a dermatologist, OB/Gyn, family practice, GI, cardiologist, etc) don't be afraid to take an appointment with the PA!

Oh, and did I mention PAs were #2 on the list of Money Magazine Top 10 Jobs in 2010?

**(Note: History from:; Other stats from:

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