When you enter an otolaryngologist’s office in Orlando, you may see the letters “PA” on the nametags of some of the folks in white coats – but do you know what that means? And what does that person actually do?
Physician assistants (PAs) are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and often serve as a patient’s principal healthcare provider. PAs are trained in the same medical model as doctors. And with thousands of hours of medical training, PAs are versatile, collaborative, and committed to improving and expanding healthcare.
“Each physician assistant that works in our practice is extremely well-qualified to evaluate and treat basic ear, nose and throat problems,” says Jeffrey J. Lehman, M.D., F.A.C.S., a board-certified otolaryngologist at The Ear, Nose, Throat and Plastic Surgery Associates. “When things are more complicated, they know just what to do, and what tests to order to advance the patient for the next surgical consultation or more extensive workup.”
PAs practice in every state and every medical setting and specialty; they improve healthcare access and quality. PAs can see patients independently and help increase appointment access, decrease wait times, and improve patient satisfaction.
What Tasks Can a Physician Assistant Perform?
PAs’ specific duties depend on the setting in which they work, their level of experience, their specialty, and state laws.
Generally, PAs can:
- Diagnose and treat illness
- Order and interpret tests (i.e., labs, imaging)
- Develop treatment plans
- Prescribe medication (with medical directives)
- Counsel on preventive care
- Perform procedures
- Assist in surgery
Additionally, PAs can undertake clinical research and write prescriptions in the majority of the 50 states.
“PAs are an essential part of our team, and they extend our reach as physicians,” says Dr. Lehman. “PA’s also serve as surgical assistants. They’re extremely well-trained in helping the surgeon to get difficult cases done in the operating room.”
What Kind of Training Do PAs Receive?
PAs are trained to practice medicine using a curriculum modeled on medical school education, and they also have a unique specialization within their field that makes them a qualified medical expert.
Physician assistants graduate from a PA program, which is typically a two-year master’s program spent in a classroom and laboratory setting. They also perform closely supervised clinical rotations in a variety of medical and surgical specialties. Many PA students have already completed a bachelor’s degree along with experience in the industry.
After graduation, PAs must become licensed to practice. They are required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). PAs also need to take refresher courses and have their clinical skills tested regularly to ensure they’re administering the very best patient care.
A Day in the Life of a PA
PAs generally perform all preliminary patient interactions. They consult with patients to determine their immediate and long-term patient care issues and goals, review their medical history, and assess treatment options. PAs then discuss observations and recommend treatment plans with the supervising physician. PAs greatly enhance the efficiency of the physician by performing the following:
- Patient interviews
- Obtaining patient medical histories
- Physical examinations
- Recording patient care services
- Preparing medical charts
To increase the efficiency and quality of patient care, many diagnostic and curative procedures are performed by the PA under the direction of a supervising physician. A physician assistant examines patients and determines any abnormal conditions or anomalies by:
- Performing X-ray, MRI, or CT scan
- Doing electrocardiograms
- Undertaking laboratory studies
- Administering injections and immunizations
- Cleaning, dressing and suturing wounds and infections
The PA prescribes therapeutic treatment and advises and counsels patients, discusses any chronic conditions, outlines possible outcomes of treatment, and interprets medical terms for patients and their families. These interactions are important to improve patient healthcare education, and to promote wellness and healthy lifestyle choices.
The physician assistant handles many of the administrative duties of a medical clinic or office. These duties may include the following responsibilities:
- Oversee regulatory compliance to ensure a safe and clean working environment
- Manage infectious disease control policies, procedures, and protocols
- Develop healthcare team and coordinate technical information, educational programs and growth opportunities for staff members
- Maintain records and certifications to comply with laws, regulations, and license requirements.
Almost 125,000 PAs practice in virtually every medical setting across the country. They work in hospitals, medical offices, community health centers, nursing homes, retail clinics, educational facilities, correctional institutions, and serve in the nation’s uniformed services. They play a key role in developing patient healthcare management plans to provide individually tailored continuity of care for patients.
For Dr. Lehman, PAs form a critical component in the overall care he is able to provide as a physician. “With my busy surgical schedule, I may not be available at a specific office for a specific patient on the day they need,” he says. “My physician assistants are well-trained in the way I manage people after surgery, and they extend my ability to take care of my patients in that way.”