Ask the Panda: Physician Assistants

Hey, Panda, what’s up with Physician Assistants? There are a bunch of them rotating with me and they say that they are just as well trained as doctors and can make more money. To tell you the truth, they are kind of a pain in the ass.

Excellent question. For those of you who don’t know, Physician Assistants are non-physician clinicians who are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. Ideally, they are used in the role of “extenders” and might, for example, round on a surgeon’s patients in the hospital leaving him free to spend more time doing cases. Almost all specialties have a definite need for PAs. In Emergency Medicine, for example, PAs often handle the urgent care or less acute cases. Some rural Emergency Departments, however, are staffed by PAs who have received extra training in Emergency Medicine. This is a direct result of both a shortage of physicians in underserved areas and financial pressures on hospitals, private practices, and municipalities as PAs are generally cheaper to hire than a residency-trained physicians.

Many PAs working in lucrative specialties can, in fact, make more money than physicians working in primary care. I know a PA who has been working for a local neurosurgeon for the last twenty years and without going into the specifics, most Family Practice physicians would be envious of his compensation. But generally, a PA will make considerably less than the residency-trained physician in that specailty. I mention this because you will hear many PAs bragging that they can make more than doctors. This is true, but in any given specialty PAs are hired because they are more economical than physicians for the level of work they do. If the cost is the same or more there is no advantage.

Are they as well-trained as you will be after you finish medical school and residency? Of course not. No doubt a PA who has been in practice for ten years probably knows more practical medicine than a freshly minted intern. But we’re not comparing apples on apples. If you compare, let’s say, the training of a brand new PA who has just finished his two-and-a-half year program with the training of a brand new internal medicine attending who has just finished his seven year training program there is no contest. I am going to get a lot of hate mail for pointing out this simple and obvious fact but a PA, by and large, can practice after he completes PA school. A physician can only practice after both medical school and an extensive period of residency training.

Do the math.

The question then becomes, do you need seven years or more of training to function as a physician? This is the 64-dollar question. As many of you will find out, apart from the legal requirements, a lot of medicine is fairly bread-and-butter and could be handled by a school nurse much less a PA. I have done several out-patient pediatric rotations and with the exception of a few interesting cases, it was nothing but viral gastroenteritis (the craps), viral upper respiratory infections (the coughs), or eczema (the itches). Not to mention “Well Child Checks” that could be done by a trained monkey which is why they have interns do them. Likewise, an otherwise healthy man with hypertension probably does not need your medical degree from Johns Hopkin and your residency training from Duke to have a couple of prescription written every six months.

On the other hand a lot of medicine is not bread and butter. Part of your training is learning to know your limitations and the scary thing about PAs and other mid-levels is that, having only sipped sparingly from the well of knowledge, their little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Things can get out of hand easily in medicine, either quickly because of mistakes made in acute interventions, or slowly as the result of bad judgement or mismanagement of chronic conditions. Physicians, for their part, are not immune from errors and bad decisions but imagine the danger from someone with a third of the formal training who gets in over his head and doesn’t know enough to realize it except when it is too late.

I had a patient with a Pulmonary Embolus, for example, who despite a history of obesity, oral contraceptives, and smoking was diagnosed with “Viral Upper Respiratory Infection” by a PA in an urgent care clinic only hours before she was brought in by ambulance for severe shortness of breath. This is a pretty simple example and most PAs would pick up the not-so-subtle clues in the patient’s history but there are thousands of permutations and combinations of symptoms and long formal training which includes didactics is definitely a major advantage. Whether this is recognized politically is another story. To a politician or anybody making public policy, “health care providors” are interchangeable components and one is as good as another to demonstrate a compassionate concern for univeral access to health care. It is also easy to make scapegoats out of “rich doctors,” most of who are not actually rich, especially as the public by-and-large has no idea how much low-paid and no-paid training is required to make a doctor. My neighbors sneer at the state of my lawn and opine that a guy like me pulling in the proverbial six-figures could pay to have it mowed more often.

The other thing you’re going to hear a lot from PAs is that they get better clinical training in PA school than you get in medical school. As evidence of this they will point to their greater facility with physical exams, blood draws, and other basic medical skills than you have as a third year medical student. Again, this is not comparing apples with apples. PA students learn practical clinical skills almost from the start of their training so they show up on the wards with a slight advantage. Medical students, on the other hand, learn practically no clinical skills during first and second year as these years are dedicated to basic science and general medical knowledge. By the end of fourth year your practical skills will be far beyond those of a PA student who only acutally does one year of clincal work compared to your two and, at least at the three medical centers where I have rotated with PAs, don’t do call and work substantuially fewer hours than the medical students.

“Oh yeah,” some PAs say, “But most of what you learn in first and second year of medical school is of no practical value and besides, you forget most of it.”

As you know, I am not the biggest fan of medical training. And it is true that a knowledge of some esoteric topics like embryology is rarely, if ever, needed by the majority of physicians. But I have never regreted the many hours I spent learning these topics and I think it is the height of arrogance for both medical students and PAs to decide, based on their limited experience, what is necessary knowledge and what is not. Medical knowlege forms part of your deep medical personality and besides serving as a platform on which to build the knowledge that you should be acquiring for your whole medical career, also allows you to speak intelligently and authoritatively to an increasingly medically sophisticated public.

Besides, this particular sword cuts deeply both ways. Why stop at medical school if we want to eradicate useless knowledge? I’m sure I can ride aggresvely through the curriculum of PA school, nursing school, paramedic school, and any school you care to mention, slashing, burning, raping, and pillaging innocent knowledge from the curriculum with the abandon of a deranged mongol and the bread-and-butter patient would still get his prescription for Glucophage. Let’s just do away with the whole deceptive edifice and recruit motivated and reasonably intelligent high school students to staff highly specialized low-level clinics in much the same way we fill positions in the fast food industry.

In short, while it is reasonable to worry about the encroachment of mid-levels into the practice of medicine, this is a political thing and not a reflection on the intensive and necessary training you are recieving.

2 thoughts on “Ask the Panda: Physician Assistants

  1. hello, panda. I just found your blog, and must say I am impressed. I have been having a conflict with myself recently about whether to go PA or DO. Basically the obvious arguments pop up in my head: less time and money to be a PA…but wait; more money and more clout to be a DOC…

    The other thing that scares the hell out of me about taking the plunge into medical school is the whole socialized medicine shit that has made Canadian and European medicine a frigging joke. Do I want to devote that much of my youth to inevitibly be a part of ‘wal-mart healthcare’.
    I currently work as a nuclear medicine technologist in a cardiology clinic, so I realize that much of medicine is already wal-mart-like. However, before I graduated last May with my bachelor degree, I knew that I’d go back for something. I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m being extremely indecisive, and procrastinating way too much. Any help/suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks.

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