You know that you need to bring your growing baby or child to see the doctor regularly for what is called well-baby care: the regular check-ups that allow your healthcare provider to monitor your child’s growth, administer vaccinations, and generally just make sure that everything is going well. These office visits are also an opportunity for you to ask questions and get information about your child’s health.
When people think of a visit to the doctor for your child, they tend to think of pediatricians, physicians who specialize in the treatment of babies, children, and adolescents. But more and more often, pediatric care is being delivered by a physician assistant.
“Physician Assistants (PAs) are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and often serve as a patient’s primary healthcare provider,” said Heather Gilbreath, MPAS, PA-C, president of the Society for PAs in Pediatrics. They can also order and interpret laboratory tests, provide patient education and preventive care, develop and manage treatment plans, and assist in surgery.
“Physician assistants are trusted healthcare providers with extensive education and training. There is incredible value in your child being cared for by a team of healthcare professionals that includes a PA,” Gilbreath says.
There are about 150,000 physician assistants practicing in the United States, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants. They often serve as a person’s main healthcare provider and practice in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. PAs can work in hospitals, medical centers, community health centers, clinics, and nursing homes.
Just like physicians, PAs can specialize in a medical area like pediatrics, but they are educated in general medicine, which gives them a comprehensive view of all aspects of medicine. They are versatile and collaborate closely with other health professionals. For example, Gilbreath practices in a pediatric neurology clinic at an academic hospital, where she sees children with neuromuscular disorders such as muscular dystrophy.
In most states, a physician assistant is required to have an agreement with a specific physician in order to practice. This is called a collaborative agreement and it outlines the procedures a PA can perform.
“My delegating physician and I are committed to a collaborative team practice in an effort to best meet the needs of the patients and their families,” said Gilbreath. “When in clinical care, I regularly provide education and answer any questions that might arise.” She added that, usually, patients alternate between seeing her and the physician.
One of the benefits of a physician assistant is that they improve access to healthcare. The profession of PA was created in the 1960s and 1970s to help deal with shortages of physicians. There is a high demand for PAs, and it is one of the fastest growing professions in the United States.
To become a physician assistant, a person must study for years. There are more than 250 programs for studying to become a PS in the country and a person has to have a bachelor’s degree and have taken courses in basic and behavioral sciences to be accepted. Student PAs have often worked thousands of hours as paramedics, medical assistants, or athletic trainers before they enter a PA program. PA programs are about 27 months long and include classroom instruction and more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotation.
Physician assistants have the letters PA after their name to signify their profession. The letters PA-C mean certified physician assistant and means that the person is certified by the National Commission of Certification of Physician Assistants. The certification has to be repeated every six years. MPAS, which Gilbreath has after her name, means that she has a Master of Physician Assistant Studies degree. Another degree that some physician assistants have is Master of Clinical Health Services (MCHS).
Pediatric physician assistants and pediatric nurse practitioners may work side by side, and there is some overlap on what kinds of care they are allowed to give. Pediatric nurse practitioners (also called NPs) can conduct physical exams, make diagnoses, prescribe medications and treatment and counsel patients and their parents. They are also called advanced practice registered nurses and have a master’s degree. The difference is that PAs are more like doctors in the way they consider and treat a problem, compared to a nursing-based approach used by nurse practitioners.