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Monday Medical: The role of PAs today

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Today
Monday Medical
MondayMedical

At a glance

• There are about 100,000 practicing physician assistants in the country.

• PAs must successfully complete a two or three-year program, including more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

• PAs must recertify every 10 years

• PAs can treat patients, prescribe medications, order and interpret tests and more

• PA visits are covered by insurance

Physician assistants, or PAs, are an integral part of the health care team and are quickly growing in popularity, but there remains some confusion about what these medical professionals can do.

At a glance

• There are about 100,000 practicing physician assistants in the country.

• PAs must successfully complete a two or three-year program, including more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

• PAs must recertify every 10 years

• PAs can treat patients, prescribe medications, order and interpret tests and more

• PA visits are covered by insurance

The short answer is, many of them do the things doctors can.

Also known as allied health professionals, PAs can see new and established patients, prescribe medicine, do physical exams, order and perform tests and treat patients.

“We can see patients, diagnose illnesses, do physical exams — all of the basic stuff a doctor would do,” said Alexa Pighini, cardiology physician assistant with YampaCare Cardiology. Pighini also holds a certificate of added qualification in emergency medicine.

The Affordable Care Act recognizes PAs, in addition to physicians and nurse practitioners, as the three types of primary care providers. While PAs don’t have as many years of schooling as physicians, they do go through hours of training and hands-on apprenticeship.

And, they can bring cost-effective, patient-focused care to their fields.

“PAs work collaboratively as a team with providers. I always tell patients here I’m able to allow for (cardiologists) Dr. (William) Baker and Dr. (Jason) Jurva to be in two places at a time and to provide the care and time they need for patients,” Pighini said.

That means if a doctor is working through a busy day of office visits, Pighini is able to see other patients with emergent needs, such as someone experiencing high blood pressure.

Pighini’s days are structured to allow time for walk-in appointments and to ensure there’s time for patients to bring up any questions or concerns they might have.

“I have time to spend with patients,” Pighini said. “Most people will say, ‘You always have time to talk with me, and I appreciate that.’”

As a PA, Pighini has been through a stringent master’s degree program and has trained in a number of different rotations, including surgery, internal medicine, emergency medicine, family medicine, OB/GYN and pediatrics. This broad experience allows PAs to shift between fields, as needed.

“The thought is that PAs should be able to move in and out of fields to provide added assistance to a provider,” Pighini said. “This is the unique part of our profession — that we have been trained and nationally certified in many fields of study.”

In Steamboat Springs, PAs practice in a wide variety of specialties, including orthopaedics, family medicine and acute care, among others.

The next time you visit your doctor, take note of all of the members of the healthcare team. Physician’s assistants are an extension of your physician, providing additional access and a high level of patient care for you.

This article includes information from the American Academy of Physician Assistants. Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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