What You Don’t Know About Physician Assistants


…And how awesome this profession is! Hopefully by the end of this post you will be more aware of Physician Assistants working in healthcare, the importance of their role and what they do.

Article in a Glance:

  • WHO: Physician Assistants (PA)
  • WHAT: A healthcare provider practicing medicine under the supervision of a licenced physician
  • WHY: To improve access to health services and reduce wait times

Highlighted Points:

  • PAs are very popular in the United States and are slowly being integrated into the Canadian healthcare system
  • PAs cost less to hire and their expanded roles in healthcare help reduce wait time for health services
  • PAs can work immediately after graduating! All graduates have a 100% employment rate and Ontario is offering a Career Start Grant for 2014 PA graduates
  • Many Doctors employ and LOVE working with PAs
  • PAs, along with Nurse Practitioners and Nurses, are NOT “mid-level health providers”. They provide the same level of care as Doctors.

Disclaimer: Some of the articles linked in this post are written in the United States, but the content regarding their role and significance in healthcare remains the same unless otherwise specified. Feel free to correct me if anything written here is incorrect or should be elaborated (I am also learning more about this new profession!)

What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?

Physician Assistants (PA) are skilled professionals who provide a broad range of medical services to support physicians. They are present in a wide range of health care settings, from hospitals to clinics. This profession is super popular in the United States, but it is currently slowly being integrated in Canada. This may be why many Canadians do not know about PAs. In Manitoba and New Brunswick, PAs are regulated but not in Ontario. PAs working in Ontario have to work under the direction of a licensed physician to provide patient care.

Why are They Introduced?

PAs have shown to improve access to health services and overall quality of care in the United States (real studies done, yo!). In Ontario, one of their goals is to reduce wait time for patients to access medical services. Read more about the PA demonstration projects in Ontario here.

What do they do?

PAs have a wide range of medical responsibilities which includes examining patients, diagnosing and treating illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care and may assist in surgery. PAs are trained to think and diagnose like doctors and can preform about 80-90% of what doctors can do. However, they focus on less acute issues so that the doctors can see more acute or complex problems.

A PA always works under the supervision of the doctor, but this does not mean that a physician must be there with the PA all the time. The PA just needs report to the supervising physician at the end of seeing each patient/end of the day.

PAs are somewhat a one size fits all. PAs take on the specialty of their supervising physician. They have the flexibility to change their specialty without additional certification. For doctors, changing specialty means going back to school for X years for that specialization.

The Doctor Is Out, But the Advanced Practice Provider Can See You Now

Have you ever been to the Emergency Room or your family doctor’s clinic and they tell you that you’re next to see the doctor but you end up waiting two hours? Yep, we’ve all been there. If I tell you there is someone else who is qualified to order the appropriate tests and diagnose you, and you can see this person in the next 10 minutes…would you like to see this health care provider instead? Even though he or she is not an MD? When wait time is a factor, patients were willing to be treated sooner by an advanced practice provider, such as a PA.

PAs are just as capable as Nurse Practitioners and Doctors in diagnosing and treating patients. In addition to examining and educating patients, they order and interpret laboratory tests.

PAs are qualified to fulfill many duties that would free up the time of the practitioner. According to this article, wait times have been significantly reduced in emergency rooms that employ PAs and patients are able to access health care faster.

The Job Market for Physician Assistants is in Demand

…and will continue to increase! Looking for a job in health care? Look no further! Employment rate for PA graduates is 100%. The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care is also offering Physician Assistant (PA) Career Start grants to employ Ontario’s PA graduates! YES – PAs can work as soon as they graduate!

Advanced practice clinicians, like PAs, will prosper given they are more affordable to hire and can fill shortages more quickly because their training is shorter. This reduce costs for our health care system. It costs more to hire a doctor than PAs and nurses.

“The PA profession in Canada has expanded fairly dramatically,” said Winnipeg’s Chris Rhule, president of the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants (CAPA) and the first PA licensed (2003) in Canada.

Many Physicians Love PAs and Nurse Practitioners

In a survey of 1527 physicians:

  • 35% used NPs and 30% used PAs
  • Use of PAs rose from 25% to 30% between 2012 and 2014.
  • When asked which advanced practice professional they would rather work with, physicians were evenly split between NPs (30%) and PAs (31%).

Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners and Nurses are not “Mid-Level Healthcare Providers”

This article by Dr. Michale Pappas, Stop Calling Nurse Practitioners Mid Level Providers, is just too good. I am just going to quote some things he said that brings joy to my heart.

  • The term “Mid-Level healthcare provider” is used to “deminimize a health professional, who is not an MD…”Mid-level” implies that he or she provides middle of the road or average care, not high-level care. Who then delivers high-level care? It must be the MD, of course. So, who delivers the lowest level of care? Nurses?”
  • “Nurses are the foundation of medical care. They tell doctors when they recognize a problem or a need for an intervention. Then, the doctors will act. They are not low-level providers. Therefore, if nurses are not low-level care providers, then nurse practitioners cannot be mid-level providers.”
  • “It is also insulting to anyone who has decided to pursue higher education and improve oneself that he or she has finally achieved mid-level competence.”
  • If, as a clinician, you can provide excellent medical care with humility, then you provide the highest level of care available. I don’t care if the initials after your name are MD, NP, PA, or DOA. Children definitely don’t care. They just want to get better.”
  • “So let’s move out of the dark ages, and join the age of enlightenment. Let’s not insult our patients by telling them that we will provide mid-level care to them, and let’s not insult our co-workers by calling them less than what they are.

I hope this post gave you a general idea of who Physician Assistants are, what they do and how they are helping the healthcare system. Remember, Doctors, Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners and Nurses all provide the same level care but just different part of your health. No one is more superior or less than each other. They work to the best of their abilities, TOGETHER as a team for YOUR health.


5 thoughts on “What You Don’t Know About Physician Assistants

  1. Anne says:

    I just came across your site Sandy!! I’m very excited about your blog, I hope you don’t mind if I plug it on my different social media handles 🙂

    1. spkvuong says:

      I need to thank you Anne for inspiring me to start a blog! I am having so much fun writing these posts and I received many tips from your blog! Nope, I don’t mind you plugging it on your social media handles…I just hope my posts are worthy for it 😛

      1. Anne says:

        Of course! I’m glad 🙂 I keep referring people who ask questions about the PA program over to your blog. GL!

  2. zealdesai says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sandy! I am thrilled to apply for the 2017 McMaster cycle, but I wanted to clarify one thing. Again and again, I have been stumped with the question “Why do you want to be a Physician Assistant?” I know PA’s perform about 80-90% of the same work as a physician and that they have the opportunity to change their speciality whenever they want. But what makes one want to be a PA apart from being a Nurse Practioner or a Physician, if you disregard the number of years you have to spend studying. I know the importance of a PA in the healthcare field, but if someone questions you, why would you want to be a PA rather then go to med school or nursing school. How would you respond to that question? Why did you choose PA school over Med School or nursing?

    1. Sandy says:

      I know this question will come up several times during your application into PA school and also in your career. I think the best way for you to answer this question comes down to personality and preference. Do you prefer being independence or teamwork? Do you prefer defined scope of practice or variety? For myself, I enjoy being in a supportive role – I find satisfaction knowing my role made an impact in efficiency in the clinical setting I work in. I prefer to work in a team, discussing management with the physician, liaising with the nurses etc. And in general I like being able to do different things in my role – both admin and clinical – to create an efficient environment.

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