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Informing Policy. Advancing Health.

Physician Assistants: A prescription for expanded access to quality health care

May 17, 2011

This winter I took a nasty spill on the ice and injured my shoulder and elbow. In pain, I was anxious to be evaluated by a health care provider to make sure nothing was broken. My health plan scheduled me to see a physician assistant (PA) who specialized in orthopedics. The PA took a history of my accident, performed a physical exam, ordered x-rays, explained the test results and gave me prescriptions. In short, I found the PA’s evaluation and treatment of my injury both skillful and thorough.

PAs are certified health care professionals licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician, within a specified scope of practice. Research has found that the introduction of the PA profession in the early 1970s has helped expand the primary care workforce, particularly in rural and other underserved areas. It also allowed the nation to utilize the well-honed skills of returning Vietnam War medics, who lacked the professional credentials to practice in the civilian workforce.

This spring, CHI had the opportunity to learn more about Colorado’s PAs. The results of our research are exciting. Of Colorado’s 1,898 actively licensed physician assistants, 94 percent are working in a clinical practice. Just under 40 percent are “home grown,” having graduated from PA programs at CU Denver or Red Rocks Community College. More than 40 percent spend most of their time providing primary care.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the PA profession will be one of the fastest-growing occupations in the coming decade. This growth may be good news for the 16 percent of Colorado’s population who live in rural parts of the state. Eleven percent of Colorado’s PAs are currently practicing in a rural area. Residents who might otherwise be without a health care provider may have primary care access as a result of a PA-staffed clinic.

As for me, I was grateful to see a health care provider quickly without the expense of an emergency room visit. With the PA, I was able to get timely and cost-effective care and rest assured that my arm wasn’t broken.