I interviewed Billie Cartwright, MHS, PA-C (certified physician assistant holding a master of health sciences degree) for the benefit of readers who are seeking a career as a physician assistant (PA). Ms. Cartwright specializes in internal medicine for Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic in Toppenish, Washington. She is also a physician assistant in the Army National Guard.
Physician assistants work in every medical specialty treating patients under the supervision of a medical doctor. According to Ms. Cartwright "supervision" is somewhat loosely defined. The supervising physician may be supervising via telephone. She does, however, always have a medical doctor available for consultation.
"I always wanted to be a medical provider," Ms. Cartwright explained. Initially she intended to become a physician; however, once she learned about the PA profession, she knew it was the right career path for her. She would be able to meet her professional goals in a timelier manner than she had anticipated. Since she served in the military before college, she was an adult student and eager to begin her career. She is pleased with her choice; she stated that she loves providing medical care, working with patients, and learning through her daily experiences.
Prior to becoming a PA, Ms. Cartwright spent two years as a clinical researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and three years as a volunteer emergency medical technician (EMT).
Ms. Cartwright has an Associate of Science in Physical Science from Harrisburg Area Community College, a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology from The Pennsylvania State University, and a Master of Health Science from Duke University.
"Intense" was how Ms. Cartwright described her PA program at Duke University. When she began her program, she was surprised at how fast-paced the program was and how much work it entailed. She explained that her program was two years long: the first year she studied related sciences and the second year she performed clinical rotations. During the first two months of her first year she studied all of the basic medical sciences (such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, laboratory science and cellular biology). Then she moved on to learn to give physical examinations and study clinical sciences (such as endocrinology, cardiology, gastroenterology and psychology). In the second year, she rotated through all of the clinical sites (such as family medicine, inpatient medicine, surgery, and psychiatry).
The types of patient problems physician assistants treat are the same ones that doctors treat. However, depending on the physician assistant's skill level and experience, a problem may be beyond his or her scope of practice. Ms. Cartwright explained that there are no specific mandates, so it is up to the supervising physician and the individual physician assistant to set the practice parameters. Over her time in the profession, Ms. Cartwright has worked hard to advance her skills in order to broaden her scope of practice. She said that now there are not any types of health problems she does not treat. However, just as a physician would, she does transfer patients to a hospital when necessary.
Ms. Cartwright currently works in internal medicine and urgent care. She sees patients with an array conditions including heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, post stroke syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, chronic pain, fractures, seizures, lacerations, and acute illnesses.
Ms. Cartwright works with several health care workers in the clinic, including doctors, nurses, a nutritionist, a psychologist, and a diabetic educator. The health care worker that she works most closely with is a medical assistant. She describes her medical assistant as her "right arm." She said that her medical assistant gets the patients ready, takes patient vitals, assists her with procedures and keeps her on schedule throughout the day.
In her current position, Ms. Cartwright works 10-12 hour shifts four days per week. Two days a week, she works until 9:00 pm. She does work some weekends and holidays.
In addition to her work in the clinic, Ms. Cartwright also is a member of the Army National Guard. She gives physical examinations to deploying and returning soldiers. She is currently preparing to deploy to Iraq. While she does not yet know what her duties will entail during her deployment, it is likely that she will be running a troop medical clinic.
Readers who are interested in learning more about the PA profession can visit the American Academy of Physician Assistants website (www.aapa.org). Interested readers may also want to research related occupations such as physician, nurse, or medical assistant.
All images provided by Billie Cartwright. All rights are retained by her.