What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant’s focus is preventing, maintaining, and treating human illness and injury by providing a broad range of healthcare services that were traditionally performed only by a physician or medical practitioner. PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive healthcare, assist in surgery, give medical orders and write prescriptions.

“We do a lot,” said Monica Guillemin, a veteran PA who says she loves her job. “We perform a lot of duties, but a large part of what separates us is that we work under physician’s supervision. This doesn’t mean they have to be in the room with us at all times; it just means they must always be reachable by electronic means, meaning a pager or cell phone. We are equipped to handle just about every aspect of medicine except surgeries that require general anesthesia.”

Much of what Guillemin said she loves about her job is that fact that when her shift is over, she is done for the day. “I am happy that when I get off the clock I am done,” said Guillemin, and apparently it has worked to her advantage, providing enough spare time to complete law school and write several novels. She also noted that PAs get to enjoy less time in school [studying medical subjects], which leads to fewer student loans and less stress.

“School is enjoyable and takes less time for us because we don’t spend the same amount of time as physicians do delving into the ‘why’ of everything. It’s like a light bulb. We know how to replace one if it’s no good; we know how to screw it in, take it out, and we know how to flip the switch to turn it on and off, but PAs don’t necessarily need to know the intricacies of electricity to get the job done.”

There are many opportunities in the job market for individuals considering becoming physician assistants. According to data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, PAs are among the fastest growing occupations in America and have a median income of about $90,000 annually.

According to Guillemin, a veteran PA could make anywhere from that to $180,000 per year.
With the aging population, the introduction of the healthcare bill, and legislation reducing the cost of healthcare services, the job opportunities are plentiful. In addition, PAs work in just about every field, including orthopedics, plastic surgery and emergency medicine.

Kaiser, one of the largest HMOs in Southern California, is currently building new hospitals in Ontario, Fontana and Anaheim Hills, and has job postings for PAs on its website. Individuals can access the Kaiser jobs website at www.kaiserpermanentejobs.org.

So what does it take to become a PA?

In addition to four years of undergraduate education, students continue on with two years of physician assistant school, where there is a focus on didactics (lecture and textbook instruction) and clinical rotations. Graduates of accredited PA programs then become eligible for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of PAs. Certified PAs must log 100 continuing medical education (CME) hours every two years and pass a recertification exam every six years.

Another area that PAs are getting involved in is genomics, a discipline in genetics concerning the study of the genomes of human beings. On April 14, 2003, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), the Department of Energy and their partners in the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced the successful completion of the Human Genome Project to better understand the health needs of people based on their individual genetic makeup, and to design new and highly effective treatments for disease.

“Physician assistants with a focus on genetics inform patients about genetic testing and make sure they fully understand potential consequences to themselves and their families. They counsel patients before, during, and after treatment to integrate existing genomic tools, such as family history, into current practice,” said Guillemin.

A major steppingstone that PAs reached last month during Physicians Assistant Week (Oct. 6-12) was getting legislation passed that increased their roles in emergency rooms.

“This new law, SB 233, solidifies the future of California physician assistants working in the emergency department, and those PAs working for a specialty service doing consulting in the ER.

This bill would recast the definition of emergency services and care to include other appropriate licensed persons under the supervision of a physician and surgeon. This bill would expand the definition of consultation (to include PAs),” said Guillemin.

Among other significant improvements, the legislation authorizes physician assistants to perform physical examinations required for participation in school athletic programs and certify the health of specified school and college employees.

Guillemin stated that the legislation shows the appreciation for the roles PAs play and acknowledges their expertise on certain topics.

For more information regarding physician assistants and opportunities, visit the American Academy of Physician Assistants at www.aapa.org.