Physician assistants: the next wave in health care

Tech. Sgt. Herodina Lu is a dental assistant craftsman assigned to the 445th Aerospace Medicine Squadron. (Courtesy photo)

Tech. Sgt. Herodina Lu is a dental assistant craftsman assigned to the 445th Aerospace Medicine Squadron. (Courtesy photo)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Have you ever made a doctor's appointment and instead saw a physician assistant (PA)? Or maybe you saw a physician assistant and thought they were doctors? If you ever came across a similar situation, you're not alone.

With the changes in healthcare, midlevel providers such as PAs will play a vital role in providing healthcare.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, they proposed that if the delivery of primary care remained the same into the year 2020, there would be a shortage of about 20,400 primary care physicians. The integration of midlevel providers such as nurse practitioners (NP) and PAs into the delivery of healthcare will alleviate the shortage of primary care practioners.

PAs are health care professionals who practice medicine under physician supervision. They can conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, provide preventive health care counseling, assist in surgery, and write prescriptions. You can find PAs practicing in primary care settings, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology. They also work in many specialties, such as cardiology, emergency medicine, oncology, dermatology, gastroenterology, psychiatry and surgery.

The military plays a role in PA history. Due to the shortage of physicians, the first educational program for PAs began in 1965. Dr. Eugene Stead Jr. of Duke University Medical Center selected four Navy Hospital corpsmen. These corpsmen received a considerable amount of medical training during their military service. Dr. Stead based the PA curriculum on the fasttrack training of doctors during World War II. He established a two-year program to educate PAs in order to address the health care delivery issues during that time. PAs, were initially viewed as a physician substitute, they were trained to provide medical care to rural and other medically underserved populations under physician supervision.

Currently there are 33 PAs in the United States Air Force Reserve, but none currently at the 445th.

PAs require less schooling than a physician. The PA program on an average lasts about 25 months leading towards a master's degree. One year is dedicated to completing clinical rotations where they gain hands-on medical experience. Licensure ensues upon successfully passing the Physician Assistant National Certification Examination.

As a practicing PA you will be required to complete continuing education as well as a recertification examination.

So the next time you or a family member see a PA, know that you are under the care of a medically trained professional under the guidance of a physician.

For more information on how to become a PA, PA schools, and what the profession entails, you can check out the American Association of Physician Assistant
website. For more information on becoming a PA in the military, contact your local health professions recruiter.