Guest Contributor Julie Sweet

Guest Contributor Julie Sweet

After logging five decades of high-quality, cost-effective care, physician assistants are gearing up for their time in the spotlight.

The stage is set: fewer physicians are entering primary care, older family practice physicians are retiring, and the U.S. population is growing, aging and — thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  (Obamacare) — increasingly covered by health insurance. As a result, demand for primary care is hitting higher levels, yet fewer physicians are around to provide it. The United States is looking at a shortage of an estimated 20,400 primary care physicians by 2020. Who is going to provide primary care?

The same health care providers that have been dependably providing it for years are set to play a starring role going forward: physician assistants.

According to the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, full deployment of physician assistants and nurse practitioners could slash the primary care physician shortage by two-thirds.

Demand Soars for PAs

Demand for physician assistants is already at an all-time high, according to a recent Forbes report. “Physician assistants are so in demand,” the article explained, “they are gaining part of the signing bonus pie traditionally reserved for doctors.” Signing bonuses for PAs more than doubled from $3,000 in 2013 to $7,500 just a year later, according to a health care recruiter interviewed for the piece. Physician assistants were the fifth most frequently placed health care provider in 2014, the recruiter reported, outpacing several categories of physicians.

Fittingly, the PA profession was launched in 1965 in response to a shortage of primary care physicians. Since then, many physician assistants have provided medical care in underserved rural areas. More than 90,000 physician assistants are currently certified in the United States, and nearly a third of them practice in primary care, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Most physician assistants earned a bachelor’s degree and worked in health care in jobs ranging from emergency medical technician to a medical assistant before undergoing an additional two to three years in an accredited PA program to practice as a physician assistant. Similar to the physicians they work with, PAs routinely diagnose and treat illnesses, order lab tests and other services, prescribe medications, and provide patient education. In fact, studies show that physician assistants perform around 85 percent of the same duties performed by physicians.

It’s also worth noting that PAs offer value that physicians cannot. While family physicians garner annual salaries averaging $189,000, physician assistant salaries average about $107,000 a year. What’s more, physician assistants are quicker to educate and train than physicians, resulting in increased numbers of competent health care providers at less expense. Studies have shown that care provided by PAs is of high quality and similar to physician-provided care, and that many patients don’t even distinguish between PAs and physicians.

No wonder, then, that both Congress and President Obama have recognized the PA profession as essential for improving the country’s health care system.

PAs Increase Primary Care Access

Physician assistants work in collaboration with physicians, who delegate specific duties PAs may perform. The Affordable Care Act’s emphasis on team-based models of care fits seamlessly with the PA philosophy that emphasizes a patient-centered, collaborative approach to health care.

Having physician assistants in the office increases accessibility to primary care. In a recent AAPA poll, 92 percent of more than 650 patients who had seen a PA in the previous year said it was easier to get an appointment because the practice employed a physician assistant, and 93 percent agreed that PAs are trusted health care providers. In addition, 93 percent noted that PAs will be part of the solution to address the shortage of health care providers in coming years.

“The survey results prove what we have known to be true for years: PAs are an essential element in the health care equation, and America needs PAs now more than ever,” said John McGinnity, MS, PA-C, DFAAPA, president of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. “When PAs are on the health care team, patients know they can count on receiving high-quality care.”

Julie Sweet is an editor of healthcare information for She is a recent graduate of Fordham University in New York and lives in North Carolina.