More patients open to primary care offered by physician assistants

As the healthcare industry seeks to find ways to address the primary care shortage, a recent nationwide survey finds that patients are more open to care provided by physician assistants (PAs) and believe the providers will be part of the solution to address the country's lack of primary care providers.

The study, conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), revealed that 680 of the 1,500 U.S. adults surveyed said they interacted with a PA in the last year. More than 90 percent of those patients said having a PA at a practice makes it easier to get an appointment and that the PAs improve quality of healthcare and patient outcomes.

The findings aren't a surprise to AAPA President John McGinnity, MS, PA-C, pictured, who spoke to FierceHealthcare during an exclusive interview about how the country's 100,000 PAs are helping to increase patient access and meet the demand for quality healthcare.

Fifty years ago when the first wave of graduates of the PA programs entered the workforce, their need was greatest in rural healthcare, McGinnity said. That need is still there but also growing across the country. PA growth has more than doubled each decade since the program first began in the 1960s. One third of the PAs in practice today are in primary care and 37 percent work in medically unserved areas, meeting the needs for access and demand, according to McGinnity.

"To me, when we talk about changes in healthcare, I think it boils down to one thing: there are 30 million new patients coming in and they want a provider they can trust. The poll shows that patients gave us high marks for their interaction with PAs and find they discuss treatment matters in a way they understand," said McGinnity, who also serves as program director and clinical associate professor at the Department of Healthcare Sciences PA Program at Wayne State University in Detroit..

PAs attend three years of a graduate level program that requires the same prerequisite courses as medical schools and spend 2,000 hours in clinical rotation in family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, emergency medicine, psychiatry and general surgery, according to the AAPA. McGinnity says PAs are unique because they may practice in specialties but they are also trained as generalists. In fact, they must prove their competency as generalists every 10 years.

PAs are licensed in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. McGinnity says they practice in all medical settings, including hospitals and clinics, and in every medical specialty, including primary care, emergency medicine, surgery, oncology, orthopedics, psychiatry, radiology and pediatrics.

Furthermore, the National Governors Association recently called on states that have limited PAs' scope of practice to consider expanding their regulations.

In addition to an increase in acceptance among patients and the healthcare community, McGinnity has also seen a growth in interest in the profession. There are currently 10 applicants for every seat in his university's program. In the early 1990s there were 54 PA programs in the U.S. Today that number is 191, and 70 more are in the pipeline for accreditation. "The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 38 percent growth in demand," he said.

McGinnity believes the greatest growth will be in the hospital setting as healthcare continues to consolidate and the industry moves to value-based care. "It's been shown that PAs improve patient satisfaction so if I'm a hospital administrator, I'd want a workforce that was sophisticated, flexible, improves patient satisfaction and improves physician overall job satisfaction. It's a win-win," he said.

And unlike physicians, who often express dissatisfaction with the profession, McGinnity said the association surveyed 18,000 PAs recently and 80 percent said they were satisfied with their profession.

"They love what they do," he said. "They are educating about disease process and they work as members of a team to improve outcomes. There is a lot to be said of the PA model."

To learn more:
- read an announcement about the survey
- here's the National Governors Association statement