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What Is a Physician Assistant?

You called the doctor’s office today to make an appointment. When you ask to see a specific
doctor, the receptionist responds, “The doctor does not have any available openings for two
months but we can schedule you with one of our physician assistants next week.” You think to
yourself, What the heck is a physician assistant! It’s my hope that this article clears this up.

Physician assistants, better known as PAs, are licensed medical professionals that practice
medicine under the supervision of a physician. As providers with full prescribing privileges,
PA’s examine, diagnose and treat patients in the same way that a physician does. The
relationship between the physician and PA is a collaborative one. The oversight provided by the
physician may include daily meetings, weekly meetings or they may be on an as needed basis
depending on the experience level of the PA as well as the comfort level of the supervising
physician. This allows for better access to care as a physician may supervise up to four PAs at a
time in Arizona.

So you may ask yourself, why should I be comfortable seeing a PA instead of waiting for
the doctor. The education of physician assistants is quite rigorous. The PA’s education now
consists of a master’s level education. A typical PA program requires a bachelor’s degree to get in
and requires about 12 months of didactic(in class) education followed by 2000 hours of
supervised clinical training. Following successful completion of a PA program, the PA then goes
on to work under the supervision of a physician which usually involves a period of training in
that specialty. One very important point is that the PA education mimics that of medical school
for physicians, the only difference being the duration. PAs are required to obtain 100 hours of
continuing education every two years and must retake the board exam every 10 years.

Multiple studies have shown that patient satisfaction with the care of PAs is high with a
number of studies also showing outcomes that were indistinguishable from that of physicians.
PAs are employed in every subspecialty of medicine including all surgical specialties.
Some interesting facts about PAs:

• The first PA training program was in 1965 at Duke University making the profession over 50
years old
• PAs have over 400 million patient interactions per year
• As of 2020, there are 148,019 physician assistants practicing medicine

As patients, I would encourage you to strongly consider scheduling an appointment with
a physician assistant. It’s likely that you will be able to get in sooner, get a plan of care started
and continue to see the same PA on an ongoing basis. And if you’re like one of the 93% of
respondents in one study, you’re likely to be satisfied with your treatment.

Mike Higbee, PA-C

Mike Higbee is a nationally certified physician assistant specializing in psychiatry. Mike graduated from St. John’s University in New York City in 2003 with honors. His guiding philosophy in practice is not only to alleviate the burden of psychiatric illness but also to guide his patients on where certain aspects of the disorder may be useful. Mike has experience in outpatient psychiatry, substance use treatment as well as crisis psychiatry. He is an active member of the Association of Physician Assistants in Psychiatry. He is also in the process of writing the chapters on psychotic disorders and anxiety disorders for a medical textbook in collaboration with Yale Medical.

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