When patients think of going to the doctor’s office, they probably picture a physician first. But in reality, there is a whole team of health care professionals, including physician assistants (PA), nurse practitioners, nurses and support staff, who work collaboratively to provide high quality health care.
So, what exactly is a PA, and what can a PA do?
A PA serves as a patient’s principle health care provider and is educated in the medical model. They diagnose illnesses, develop and manage treatment plans, and prescribe medications, when indicated. PAs also order and interpret medical tests and provide counseling on preventive health care. They are nationally certified and work side by side with both osteopathic and allopathic physicians in every medical specialty. Today there are over 131,000 PAs who practice in every medical setting in the United States.
Each PA has at least six years of education: a four-year undergraduate degree and their master’s degree in physician assistant studies, which typically takes two or three years to complete. PAs typically complete around 2,000 hours of clinical rotations prior to graduation. PAs must obtain a license in any state they wish to practice, and must recertify every 10 years to demonstrate continued competency.
According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), the PA profession began in the mid-1960s, when physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage of primary care physicians. The first PA Program began at Duke University in North Carolina to help address this problem. The first PA students were Navy corpsmen who received significant medical training during their military service but returned from Vietnam to find there were no comparable civilian employment opportunities. The creation of the PA profession provided a way for the corpsmen to take their military training and turn it into a civilian career, while offering high quality health care to patients in underserved areas.
The Lincoln Memorial University-School of Medical Sciences (LMU-SMS) PA Program is a full-time, 27-month curriculum whose graduates earn a Master of Medical Science degree in Physician Assistant Studies. The program provides an intense immersion into clinical education and practice that focuses on the pathogenesis of disease, the clinical presentation of the disease state, and the interventions and therapeutics needed to treat each patient. The LMU program has been ranked as the 10th highest, out of all U.S. PA programs, for the proportion of graduates working in rural locations in a study completed by the Rural Health Research Center.
The LMU-SMS faculty use an eclectic blend of instructional techniques to enable optimal learning and allow for early application of concepts that include small group work, clinical skills labs, clinical scenarios, and simulations. Additionally, students receive early exposure to patient care by working in a rural clinic with supervision.
Service is an integral part of the LMU-SMS culture. Each year, LMU PA students participate in local events related to health literacy and health promotion as well as regional and foreign medical missions. The students are also engaged in promoting the PA profession by speaking with lawmakers at the state capital each spring and by participating in state and national student academies.
The faculty, staff, and students at the LMU-SMS are proud to celebrate national PA Week with alumni and all PAs working to provide quality health care across the nation.
Stephen Noe, DMS, MPAS, PA-C, is the Physician Assistant Program Director for the Lincoln Memorial University-School of Medical Sciences. This column is presented as a community service and is not intended to provide specific medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice or medical assistance, please contact your physician. For more information on the LMU PA Program visit sms.LMUnet.edu.