Chances are your doctor has one. If he doesn’t, then a colleague of his certainly does. Eventually, you’re going to come face to face with one; but if you’re not sure whom you’re dealing with, there could be confusion, frustration, and some irritation tossed in for good measure. So what’s this illusive, often-misunderstand and occasionally maligned medical mystery component? It is your doctor’s new best friend. It is his colleague, trusted confidante and loyal partner. In short, it’s his PA (physician assistant).

Sweeping across the country as the fourth fastest growing career is the physician assistant and if your physician or specialist doesn’t have one yet, he soon will. These skilled individuals contribute to excellence in patient care in multi-faceted ways by shortening patient wait time, ordering diagnostic tests, performing therapeutic procedures, instructing and counseling patients, and sometimes prescribing medicines with their physician’s approval. In sum, a physician’s assistant makes everyone’s life better.

Not convinced? Consider this all too familiar scenario. You injure yourself and the dreaded trip to the local emergency room is required. Once you’ve been evaluated by the attending doctor and the appropriate protocol has been followed for your particular case; tests are run, x-rays taken, medicines are prescribed. You’re now handed the release forms with instructions to make a follow-up (or for further treatment) appointment with your own physician within the next few days. No problem, so far. That is, until you try to get that coveted time slot within your slim timeframe. Frequently, patients requiring quick follow-up care end up waiting much longer than is recommended, even after being instructed by the medical professionals by whom they’ve just been treated.

Sadly, scheduling backup doesn’t limit itself to the currently ill or newly injured; it’s just as widespread for the bulk of patients seeking appointments for their regular check-ups as well. Waiting an additional month or two for an annual check-up is now commonplace; yet it is not nearly so frustrating or risk-ridden as when the need to be seen by a physician is urgent and ordered by another health care professional for optimizing the healing process. Therein lies the beauty of the physician assistant’s service to patients needing either preventative or palliative care.

If and when you are placed in the position of needing immediate, non-emergency care (and one day, you will be), your most advantageous edge at getting the promptest care may well come through your physician’s trusted PA.

From the every vantage point, it only makes sense for doctors to co-labor with a physician’s assistant as their job function is both comprehensive and complementary in easing the burdensome workload of the physician as well as that of the staff. Physician’s assistants likewise communicate with respective coordinating hospital and secondary technical facilities to provide faster care to those initially skeptical, but eventually won over, highly satisfied and grateful patients.

Specifically, what does a PA offer? Perhaps first and foremost in every patient’s mind is the speed to which they are able to get an appointment. Timeliness and flexibility in patient scheduling is a primary benefit. Says Dr. Christopher A. Foetisch, orthopedic surgeon at the Toledo Clinic, “When my PA is out of town, we schedule about fifteen less patients per day.” Additionally, given that Dr. Foetisch is only in his office two days a week, his patients are able to secure prompt care through his PA who offers faster admittance to this practice’s expertise. Once in the office, patients can then be confident that the PA has access to all tests, x-rays, and prescribed medicines as well as any other pertinent medical information. The PA also confers with the doctor on the primary care plan while getting initial treatment started sooner.

So why then, after considering the above clear benefit to all concerned, do some physicians’ assistants run into initial resistance from patients? Sadly, a few patients react with a certain measure of skepticism when their doctor’s PA enters the room. Why? From a purely practical standpoint, people don’t like repeating themselves and after the nurse completes her brief survey of questions the very next person a hurting patient longs to see is his physician. But as Dr. Foetisch points out, “Patients should look at the PA as the door and not the barrier to seeing the doctor.”

Another more subtle bias that PA’s must overcome arises from the patient’s desire to be attended by someone he has built rapport and over time, trust. Most individuals select their doctors by word of mouth from someone they trust and respect. Thus, in a very real sense patients invest in their choice of doctor by way of making themselves vulnerable and open to personal questions as they subjugate themselves to his medical judgment. Once established, patients very understandably prefer their own doctor’s care to anyone else’s. And yet as the general public becomes better educated on how PA’s bring greater immediate and long-term benefits to their overall healthcare experience, they will begin thanking them for their input and expertise and welcoming their contributory role to their overall health care process. As Dr. Foetisch notes, “The reality is that there is a physician shortage and physician extenders are going to be more and more commonplace.”

Copyright 2011 Michele Howe