Physician assistants play an important role across the continuum of healthcare, from birth to death. Their role has expanded in the last three decades as healthcare professionals seek to fill the gap left from doctor shortages across the United States.
It’s estimated the shortage in primary care medical doctors will continue to grow as fewer medical students choose to enter the field.
Primary care physician assistants play a unique role in the lives of their patients. They provide care for their immediate health needs as well as help manage chronic disease conditions.
Primary care PAs are in the best position to provide preventive education and health management strategies. They help their patients reduce the effect of chronic disease and prevent the development of health conditions.
Primary Care Physician Assistants Are Critical to Healthcare
In 2018, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) recorded a total of 131,152 certified PAs. Of those, 25.8% practiced in primary care.
Unfortunately, this has declined by 2.5% since 2015. Physician assistants play a vital role in primary care, and the declining numbers, alongside growing physician shortages, may have a significant impact on people’s ability to get care.
The NCCPA recorded the majority of physician assistants practicing in primary care were in the 30 to 39 year age bracket and were living in the Midwest and Western U.S. 6.1% of all PA-Cs had indicated they would be leaving their positions for another career, and 9.2% were planning to retire within the next five years. Both of these figures support the declining numbers.
It is also estimated the physician shortage will continue to grow in the coming years. The 2019 National Resident Matching Program for physicians had a record-high number of spots in primary care. But it was also the lowest number of positions on record to be filled.
These data show a need for physician assistants in primary care. And a physician assistant’s education places you in a unique position to practice in primary care directly out of your physician assistant program.
This ensures care for individuals who may not otherwise have access. It also offers you a significant opportunity to explore a variety of patient populations. You can work in family medicine or emergency medicine, all the while building a reputation and a foundation in healthcare.
The Role of Physician Assistants in Primary Care
In primary care, a physician assistant performs physical examinations, assesses physical conditions, diagnoses conditions, orders and interprets tests, prescribes treatment plans (including medications), and manages care.
PA-Cs are responsible for counseling patients in prevention, discussing lifestyle choices, and recommending strategies to make changes. Physician assistants provide both acute and preventive care in the primary care population, playing a unique role for mid-level practitioners.
Similarities to Physicians
Physician assistants perform many of the same roles as medical doctors. In fact, research finds they perform up to 90% of the same services as a traditional primary care medical doctor. They are recognized health professionals that work in collaboration with doctors providing patient management.
In 2004, a U.S. national skills assessment showed very few differences in the tasks performed by PAs and physicians. The study found this correlation based on the length of time an individual had worked as a physician assistant.
One review found the role of any particular physician assistant is negotiated with their supervising physician. It also found that the role reflects the PA’s experience and training. As a result of this individuation in practice, there is a significant potential for overlap between the work of a physician assistant and a doctor.
Why Primary Care PAs Matter
Before the term “primary care” was widely used in medicine, physician assistants embodied this generalist practice, which led to the profession’s success.
In the 1990s, it became evident that physician assistants could expand on the delivery of health services, improving public health. This led to new federal policies to ensure reimbursement for services and encourage deployment in rural, underserved areas.
Organizations, such as healthcare clinics and hospitals, value a physician assistant’s ability to deliver primary care to a large population. This helps serve the needs of the community and improves the management of chronic disease.
Between 2001 to 2009, the CDC found a 50% increase in the number of patients primary care physician assistants saw in outpatient clinics. This number was larger in non-teaching hospitals than in teaching hospitals.
Research has shown physician assistants treat more acute conditions (such as injuries and illnesses) than physicians or nurse practitioners. It has also shown that 50% of patients seen for acute problems also presented with comorbid conditions.
When a physician assistant works in a rural area, they perform more procedures than those who see patients in urban areas. Thus, physician assistants improve accessibility to care in underserved populations.
Benefits of the Physician Assistant in Primary Care
Physician assistants have a choice of working in many different specialties, ranging from primary care to surgical subspecialties, such as vascular surgery or trauma surgery. However, those who choose primary care also have a unique opportunity to treat a wide range of conditions.
Family practice and general medicine have remained a popular choice for PA-Cs. While some of the specialties and subspecialties may make slightly more money, there are factors that affect the salary and scope of practice, including experience, facility, and geographical area.
A second benefit arises from the general education a physician assistant receives in their PA program. Once graduated and certified, primary care physician assistants are highly sought-after. As fewer MDs choose these practice placements, more practices fill the gap in care with Advanced Practice Providers, such as PAs and NPs.
The continued need for physician assistants in primary care practice leads to job security for those working in urban and rural areas. As the recent COVID-19 outbreak proved, primary care providers are in high demand, and PAs are more than qualified to fill the need.
When the economy dips, other specialties, such as dermatology or plastic surgery, may experience a lull in the job market. However, physician assistants in primary care will always be needed.
Aging Population Expected to Grow
Baby boomers are the largest living adult population. Pew Research Center reports 76 million people are in the Baby Boomer age group, and they will all reach retirement age by 2030. Unfortunately, 60% of those over 65 have at least one chronic disease and 40% have two.
These include conditions such as heart disease, lung disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Each of these requires strong primary care management to reduce healthcare costs and improve quality of life. As a part of this population’s care team, physician assistants in primary care provide health services as well as receive job security.
Independent Yet Collaborative Practice
As a physician assistant providing primary care, you have the opportunity to care for your own patients and work collaboratively with your supervising physician and other Advanced Practice Provider.
Physician assistants interact with community services and home care agencies to provide safe care for their patients. You may also collaborate with insurance case managers to ensure your patients are afforded the best possible care.
Variety of Patient Populations
Do you get bored easily? No problem! When you practice in primary care, you are challenged by a variety of illnesses and patient situations each day.
Primary care physician assistants in general medicine, family practice, internal medicine, and pediatrics are often faced with chronic and acute illnesses, injuries, family planning, psychiatry, diet, exercise, and sleep concerns.
For many women their gynecology PA-C functions as their primary care provider. You’ll have the opportunity to do minor procedures in the office, and you’ll find your patient population offers you plenty of challenges and variety.
When physician assistants are starting out, relationships with their patients may not be as important. However, as a primary care physician assistant, you have the opportunity to build relationships with the same patients, sometimes for decades. You may even have the honor of treating one of your first patients’ children.
If you see these relationships as a perk, you’ll find your patients love you and value you as a part of their care team. And in primary care, you get to see the end of the story in ways that other specialties do not.
In other words, you provide long-term care. This gives you the ability to follow through with patients after leaving the emergency room or seeing a specialist. It offers you a unique snapshot of how your interactions and interventions affect the lives of your patients and their families.
Work Hours and Work Environment
You may think with a shortage of primary care practitioners in the United States, PAs would have to work longer hours, but that’s not the case. NCCPA data show a physician assistant in primary care works a median of 40 hours per week.
The data also show 62% of all primary care physician assistants are not ever on call. Of the PA-Cs that do take on-call hours, the majority have five or less on-call hours each week.
Salary is also something to consider. The income range for those working in primary care is wide. The NCCPA records a range of less than $40,000 to greater than $160,000 per year. The largest majority of primary care physician assistants fall into an income range of $80,000 to $120,000.
Find Your Perfect Primary Care Role
As we covered in a recent article, there are multiple places to find a job in the PA profession. However, job boards, Google searches, and social networks are time-intensive and frustrating.
We believe as a primary care physician assistant, you are highly marketable and offer a powerful skill set. As a part of a care team, you provide patient care in a variety of practice settings, such as private practice and health care clinics.
Consider searching our database of primary care physician assistant positions throughout the U.S.
Do you have a particular location or request? Contact our recruiters! They are experts who can help you find the right position and connect you with the care setting you seek, free of charge.