The original role for Physician Assistants was to provide healthcare in underserved rural and inner city areas. Today, the proven effectiveness of physician assistants has expanded the profession into every medical specialty, from pediatrics to psychology. Opportunities will continue to expand in this fast-growing profession.
The profession of Physician Assistant developed because of the need for medical care in underserved rural areas and the inner city. While that need still continues, there are now physician assistants "in every specialty," says Jennifer Dean Dwyer, public and professional relations chair for the Minnesota Academy of Physician Assistants. "Dermatology, neurology, orthopedics, cardiology - you name the specialty, there are physician assistants working in it."
This is good news for healthcare, Dwyer says. "From a medical access perspective, and for cost-effectiveness, I think it's fabulous that we're using physician assistants in every specialty," she says. "We can increase access to healthcare with less cost. It frees up the physician to do more complex things."
Primary Care Still Primary Focus
According to the 2007 survey conducted by the Minnesota Academy of Physician Assistants, 36 percent of physician assistants are working in family practice, with another 19 percent in primary care specialties like pediatrics and internal medicine. But the survey also shows 23 physician assistants in orthopedic surgery, 5 each in obstetrics and gynecology and general surgery, 6 in urology, 3 in cardiology and 4 in academic settings.
With more and more medical disciplines discovering the benefit of physician assistants, it's no wonder that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted a 27 percent growth in the field between 2006 and 2016.
To help bring more PA's into the field, the Minnesota Academy of Physician Assistants provides scholarships based on financial need and on academic merit. They also work with the Augsburg College Physicians Assistant program to host a "health day" field trip for high school students from low-income areas. The program offers speakers on health topics and healthcare careers, including physician assistants. There is also hands-on experience taking blood pressure, putting on splints and doing other typical tasks.
Prior Experience A Requirement
When Dwyer entered the field, the majority of physician assistants were coming from second careers. One of her classmates, she recalls, was in his fifties when he started the program. Today, people are entering the field at a younger age, Dwyer says, largely because young people are familiar with physician assistants through their school physicals or athletic programs.
Prior experience in healthcare is a requirement for becoming a physician assistant, Dwyer says. That means physician assistants often train in emergency medical technician (EMT), nursing or some other healthcare field prior to completing their physician assistant work. While the majority of physician assistant programs are now at the master's degree level, Dwyer says, there are still a few programs that award certificates to people who already have bachelor of science degrees in another medical discipline.
For more information, Dwyer recommends visiting the American Academy of Physician Assistants website, which has a lot of good information: www.aapa.org. She also recommends the Minnesota Academy of Physician Assistant site at www.mnacadpa.org.
Laura French is principal of Words Into Action, Inc., and is a freelance writer from Roseville.