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The profession of the physician assistant (PA) was conceived around World War II, when a shortage of army doctors led to the need for trained medical assistants to help manage with the volume of wounded soldiers. In 1942, in response to this need, Dr. Eugene Stead, Jr. developed a 3-year program to train physicians for military service at Emory University in Atlanta. By 1960, there was a notable lack of primary care physicians in the US, raising the need for knowledgeable, clinically trained medical personnel to provide primary care where physicians could not. This led Dr. Stead to found the first PA training program at Duke University in 1965.
Most PA students in the early stages of this profession were military medics, but more recently have started moving into primary care. The profession has traditionally been male dominated due to its militaristic beginnings, but today an estimated 58% of PAs are female. Although initially met with opposition, especially by the nurse practitioner community, over the years physician assistants have become commonplace in the healthcare field, with hundreds of colleges offering PA programs and nearly all healthcare institutions employing PAs. Today many PAs provide primary care services to patients.
Method of Treatment
Physician Assistants are academically and clinically trained to diagnose, consult with and treat patients, as well as being allowed to prescribe medication in all 50 states including the District of Columbia. They also perform check-ups, diagnostic tests and surgical procedures. They work in rural and urban settings, ranging from private primary care practices to specialized clinics to surgical wards of hospitals. Common areas of practice for PAs include family practice, general surgery, and emergency medicine. They may also hold teaching, research, or administrative positions. Physician Assistants provide healthcare under license and supervision of physicians holding either an MD (doctor of medicine) or DO (doctor of osteopathy).
In order to become a licensed Physician Assistant, most programs will require prospective students to have completed at least two years of college, as well as have experience in a healthcare related setting such as being an EMT or licensed nurse. It is not uncommon, due to the competitive nature of the field, for prospective PAs to hold a bachelor’s degree in a healthcare related field as well as having several years of health-related experience under their belt before enrolling in an accredited PA program. PA programs are offered at many academic institutions throughout the country, usually through their college of medicine. These courses typically take 25 to 27 months to complete. In addition to completing a PA degree, they must also log a hundred hours of continuing education every two years.
Credentials and Regulating Bodies
Physician Assistants are certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). In order to obtain certification, they must complete a PA program accredited by the organization, as well as pass an entry-level examination. They are required to recertify every 6 years. They hold the credentials PA-C indicating that they are certified physician assistants. In addition, like most medical professionals, they are regulated at a national as well as state level. While licensing laws may differ slightly by state, there are a few uniform standard practices throughout all states, for example; all states require a PA to obtain national licensure before applying for a state license and, PAs must hold a license for the state in which they wish to practice.
The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is the main national professional organization for PAs. They are affiliated with the credentialing body, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. The goal of the AAPA is to advance healthcare education, hold its members to high standards of practice, and advocate the value of the physician assistant profession.
To learn more about physician assistants, please visit the AAPA website at www.aapa.org.