It's a common problem for patients, especially in densely populated San Diego County: you have a non-urgent health issue and need to be seen by your doctor ASAP, but he or she has no openings. You are seen by their PA (physician assistant), who evaluates and diagnoses you, then writes a prescription. The visit seems no different than a normal visit with your doctor, which leaves you wondering, "What exactly is a PA, and why didn't I need to see my doctor?"
By definition, a physician assistant, or PA, is "a medical provider who is licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease, and prescribe medication for patients." Working under a written agreement with a licensed doctor, PAs make clinical decisions and provide a range of diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive and health maintenance services. The PA is trained to represent the doctor and act on his or her behalf, as part of an integrated care team.
Having PAs on staff provides noticeable benefits to patients and health care providers. Patients experience an overall decrease in wait time and an increase in time with the provider seeing them. They can often get appointments sooner because there are more providers to choose from. Studies have shown that hospitals with PAs are able to see many more patients, shorten hospital stays and decrease post-operative complications, among other improvements in care.
"As a physician assistant, I work as part of a team to provide a continuity of excellent health care to our patients," explains Greg Gunn, one of Sharp Grossmont's team of physician assistants. "Being part of the team provides me with the flexibility to spend more time with them than the doctors can. As a result, I can focus on educating patients about their illness and how they can contribute to fixing it."
With more Americans getting health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, it is likely that health care providers will come to rely more heavily on PAs to improve patient flow and care. Similarly, they may also rely more on nurse practitioners (or NPs), who can also see patients in lieu of the doctor. In California, both PAs and NPs must practice under the general supervision of a doctor. Both can deliver a high level of care as long as it falls within their scope of practice as determined by an agreement with their supervising physicians.
"Because we are able to spend extra time discussing the plan of care with our patients and addressing issues early in the game, both the doctors and patients appreciate a higher level of service and increased quality of care, which really benefits everyone," says Gunn.