Health Break | Published June 26, 2006 | Written by Scott A. Nearhoof

Physician Assistants Have Become Important Members of the Health Care Team

If you have been to the emergency department or doctor's office recently, chances are you have come in contact with a physician assistant. While physician assistants (PAs) have taken on more prominent roles as members of the health care team, many people have questions about their roles and functions. As a PA for the past six years, I have been repeatedly asked the questions that follow, and hopefully the responses will provide an understanding about the roles and functions of PAs.

Q: What is a physician assistant?
A: PAs are not doctors in training, interns or nurses. They are licensed professionals who practice medicine by working with a physician, who is their supervisor. They are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic and preventive health care services, as delegated by a physician.

Q: What medical procedures are PAs entitled to do?
A: The scope of services provided by PAs varies, depending on where they work and their level of experience. In the emergency department, PAs treat all types of patients.

Mostly, PAs take care of patients with less severe sicknesses or injuries. However, they can and do treat patients who are more seriously injured or ill; usually their supervising physician is more involved in the more serious cases.

In general, PAs take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X-rays and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries, by suturing, splinting and casting.

PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients and order or carry out therapy. In 48 states and the District of Columbia, physician assistants may prescribe medications. In Pennsylvania, PAs cannot prescribe certain narcotic pain medications.

Q: When did the PA profession begin?
A: There has been a PA profession for almost 40 years. In 1965, the first PA program was started at Duke University and graduated a class on October 6, 1967. Several years ago, Congress established National Physician Assistant Day to be celebrated every October 6 to commemorate the profession's first graduating class.

Q: Is the PA profession growing?
A: Since its inception, the expansion of the PA profession has been astronomical. Today, nearly 50,000 PAs practice at least part-time, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants' census in 2004.

In the Centre County region, the expansion has mirrored this nationwide trend. When I first started working in the Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency department in 1993, there were only a handful of PAs. Now, 13 years later, most doctors' offices and clinics in the region have at least one PA, and some, like Mount Nittany Medical Center's emergency department, have several.

As a PA, I have heard many questions about the profession, so this series of questions and answers has hopefully provided important background information on the PA profession. In a follow-up Health Break article, I will answer additional questions that I have heard regarding the education, training and regulations for PAs, as well as the working relationship between doctors and PAs.

Scott A. Nearhoof is a physician assistant in the Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency department.