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The Medical Minute: What is a physician assistant?

One of the changes taking place at many doctor's offices, due in part to adoption of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is a trend toward “team-based care,” a model that incorporates advanced care professionals in addition to physicians. To keep up with increasing demand for primary care services brought on by an aging population and broader coverage under the ACA, many practices are employing more of these advanced care professionals, including physician assistants (PAs).

PAs can perform many of the same duties as physicians. They can conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat patients, order tests, assist in surgery and prescribe medication while working under the supervision of a physician.

According to Christine Bruce, PA-C, director of Penn State College of Medicine's new PA program, practices employing PAs give patients increased access to acute care as well as comprehensive care.

“If you call into a practice, you often hear ‘your physician is booked today' and ‘we can get you in in three or four days,'” Bruce says.¬†“There are only so many hours in a day, and sometimes demand for services exceeds the ability to see patients in an expedited way,” she said. Physician offices employing PAs can most likely offer an appointment for the same day to eliminate the wait.

This “win-win” situation is often how PAs are introduced to patients, who soon learn these providers can take more time with patients, whereas doctors may be forced to adhere to time constraints to accommodate the amount of scheduled people visiting the practice and to deal with the responsibilities of being in charge of a practice.

“Patients appreciate the personal relationship that they have with their health care providers,” Bruce says.

While it is beneficial to patients to establish a relationship with more than one professional in the practice, they don’t need to worry about losing their connection to their physician because, one way or another, they can expect their doctor's input. That is because in true team-based coordinated care, there’s a “huddle” that occurs before each shift to discuss patient care and treatment. Providers can troubleshoot, ask questions or share information before or after seeing patients.

PAs are trained to work in general practice (general internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, women's health) as well as in specialty settings such as the emergency department, general and subspecialty surgery, orthopedics, psychiatry, cardiology and hematology. They are likely to have experience in multiple areas with concentration in one. Also, PAs typically have experience as another type of health care provider prior to entering PA education, so they might be able to offer some expertise from their past training in such fields as athletic training, nutrition, respiratory therapy, or with emergency medicine.

PAs receive graduate level education, with training lasting 24 to 36 months after completion of a bachelor's degree and meeting established criteria for health care experience and pre-requisite college courses. Because of the shorter training times, the profession is positioned to be able to quickly respond to the need for additional primary care services. PAs will play a pivotal role in the team-based approach of managing the growing demand for care and the changing health care needs of the population, Bruce says.

“This profession provides a great opportunity for making improvements of how healthcare in our country is delivered,” Bruce said.

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More information about Penn State College of Medicine's new PA program can be found in this article.

To view photos from this week's PA Program White Coat ceremony and learn about several members of the inaugural class, visit

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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