Physician assistants (also called PAs) are medical providers that work under the supervision of medical doctors to provide patient care. They work in all medical specialty areas as part of a doctor-physician assistant team.
I interviewed Billie Cartwright, MHS, PA-C (Certified physician assistant holding a Master of Health Science degree) to gain an insider perspective into the physician assistant profession and to find information for prospective physician assistants.
Ms. Cartwright told me that she loves her job. She said that she enjoys interacting with her patients, helping her patients to understand their medical problems, and determining how she and her patients work together to manage health problems. She also enjoys performing procedures. She likes that the job keeps her mentally active and challenged.
While she enjoys her work, Ms. Cartwright explains that the job also can be frustrating. She explained that it is frustrating to see patients make poor health choices and to see patents forgo basic preventive care either due to lack of finances or poor prioritization. She also said that trying to figure out how to get patients to work with her as partners in their own health care can be a challenge.
Before applying to a program, Ms. Cartwright advises prospective students to "be certain that being a physician assistant is the right career for you." She suggests that prospective physician assistants shadow a couple of different providers to get an inside view of the profession. She also suggests prospective physician assistants research the profession thoroughly. One resource she recommends for this research is the Web site for the American Association of Physician Assistants (www.aapa.org).
Ms. Cartwright warns that the physician assistant profession is not for students who really want to become physicians. It is not, she states, a substitute for or a route to medical school. She advises students who really want to be physicians to work toward medical school, not to go to a physician assistant program en route. She also states that students who are not academically qualified for medical school should not try to substitute physician assistance programs as an easier form of medical school because it is a demanding occupation requiring strong clinical skills. "If, however," she continues, "you want a medical career that is very rewarding and puts you in a position to be part of the doctor-physician assistant team, then definitely consider the profession of physician assistant."
There are physician assistant programs throughout the United States offering degrees ranging from associate degrees to master's degrees. It is important that prospective physician assistants select a strong program that is a good match for them. Ms. Cartwright lists some questions to ask when looking into specific physician assistant programs:
- What is the reputation of the program? (A very low ranking would be an area of concern.)
- Is the program accredited? If so, for how long has it been accredited? Has the program ever lost its accreditation?
(PA programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
- What is the faculty to student ratio?
- What is the turnover rate of the faculty?
- What portion of the faculty works part-time? What positions do the part-time faculty hold outside of teaching (to know what experiences they bring to their teaching)?
- How long has the school been working with the particular clinical rotation sites? Do students have to find their own sites?
- Is it possible to contact with any alumni? (This may be helpful to see how prepared their felt after their program.)
Readers who are interested in the profession of physician assistant should research it thoroughly. A great place to start is website for American Academy of Physicians Assistants (www.aapa.org). Readers may also want to investigate related health areas such as physician, nurse, or medical assistant.
All images provided by Billie Cartwright. All rights are retained by her.