What in the world is a Physician Assistant?

A nurse is holding a patients hand

By: Kassandra Mueller MPAS, PA-C

Back in January, I was hired as a Physician Assistant at Montgomery County Memorial Hospital to work in Red Oak Internal Medicine with Dr. Mahoney. I have found that many of the MCMH patients and people in the community do not know what a Physician Assistant (PA) is or does. In this article, I would like to provide more information about the history of the profession, the education and role of a PA in the health care system.

The Physician Assistant profession was started in the 1960s. At that time, there was beginning to be a shortage of primary care doctors. One reason for this was that physicians were beginning to specialize . In the same time frame, Medicare and Medicaid were created which allowed many more patients to have health insurance and the ability to see a doctor. There were not enough primary care doctors to handle the new patient load. The health care system needed more providers in a short time frame, thus, the development of the Physician Assistant. The American Medical Association (AMA) proposed a "fast track" medical school curriculum to train PAs in a little over 2 years..

This fast track medical school is still how physician assistants are trained today. PA training is modeled directly after that of the doctors… just in a shorter time frame. Physician assistants first have to obtain a bachelor's degree and then complete a 2+ year Master's degree in physician assistant studies. During school, PA students repeat core knowledge classes such as anatomy, physiology, and disease pathology, and then learn about all the disease processes and medications to treat patients just like doctors do. They are in the classroom daily for about 14 months before going out to learn in clinic and develop critical thinking skills. Physician assistants are all trained in primary care. Before graduating, PA students have been trained in family medicine, internal medicine, ER, OB/GYN, and pediatrics. By the end of the training, PA students have completed about 2700+ hours of patient care.

After graduation, PAs work as an extension of a physician by increasing access to care for patients. Most physician assistants work in primary care such as family medicine and internal medicine. Others work in specialties such as orthopedics, cardiology, gastroenterology, etc. Some work directly with a doctor and others work more autonomously. Physician assistants can evaluate patients, prescribe medications, perform minor surgeries, and assist in surgery.

With this information, I hope you now understand more about the Physician Assistant profession and the care they provide to patients.