Ask the Panda: More on Physician Assistants

Hey Panda. I’m a PA and I don’t like you much even though I inflict your blog on myself religiously. What do you think about Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners taking over from doctors? They might even replace you, Mister Emergency-Medicine-Smarty-Panda-Pants.

Another excellent question and a source of great angst among those who are contemplating primary care. As some of you know, Physician Assistants and their sinister cousins, Nurse Practitioners, practice pretty much independently as primary care clinicians in much of the United States, especially the rural and so-called medically underserved areas. Ostensibly they practice under the supervision of a physicians but this supervision is often pro forma and might involve an infrequent cursory review of a handful of charts by a retired physician not concerned about liability and just looking for an easy gig to make a little extra income.

Let’s get a few thing straight at the outset. First, we live in an egalitarian society that delights in thumbing its nose at authority. With this in mind, you are never going to convince the public that physicians should monopolize health care through anything equivalent to the divine right of kings. The public will turn against any group of uppity physicians oppressing the little guy to protect their ill-gotten six-figure salary. You know what is involved in medical training but I guarantee that the bulk of the sturdy and not-so-sturdy yeomanry don’t have a clue and don’t care about your sacrifices. I may think you deserve the six-figures but it’s going to be a hard-sell to the voter working down at the plywood plant for a small fraction of your salary.

Second, we should be against monopolies. A good or service of reasonable quality should be provided to the public at the lowest possible price which is determined by competition in the free market. I’ve been anti-union and for free trade for my whole life and I’d be a hypocrite to change my position simply because it’s my ox being gored.

The question then becomes, as was implied in the previous post, are the services of a residency-trained physician of greater value than those of a less well-trained physician assistant? I believe they are but let’s not get silly about it. Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are not stupid and are more than qualified to handle the majority of primary care. I think it would be criminally insane to send your aging mother with twenty competing comorbidities to a PA but does it take a doctorate level degree to treat a kid with an ear infection?

Of course not, and this is the hook that mid-level providers have with the legislature. They are cheaper than physicians, they can reasonably demonstrate that they can do some of the same work, and since giving away other people’s services is the epitome of compassion, the mid-levels provide the trapping of political compassion at fire sale prices. Whether the public is being well-served is immaterial. It’s just primary care, after all, and the mistakes are slow to evolve and can be ascribed to half a dozen causes other than clinician error.

So what’s the drawback? As you know I’m an Emergency Medicine resident. Forget what you’ve heard about Family Practice or Internal Medicine, the Emergency Physician is the true generalist. From Pediatrics to Obstetrics to Internal Medicine, the Emergency physician has to be able to make intelligent decisions involving almost every specialty and the amount of medical knowledge and skill required to do this is immense and humbling. Not a day goes by where I don’t come against the limits of my knowledge and I have been hard at it for almost six years. And I still have two more years of training before I can practice independently of skilled supervision. If you think that some guy straight out of a two-year masters program is equal to the task then God love you, you’re a true man of the people, but you are crazier than a shithouse rat.

Also consider the training required for by an internist, the basic foot-soldier of the medical profession, not to mention that required for surgical or subspecialty training. To say that a mid-level is equivalent to a trained physician is the same as saying that we are all wasting our time in residency. And that, my friends, is the question which leads us too…

Will Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioner take over primary care?

Yes. No. It doesn’t matter.

Yes, because American medical school graduates are not exactly flooding the zone protecting their territory from the rapacious inroads of the mid-level providers. Family Medicine, the paragon of primary care is, for several reasons, the least popular career path. It takes a special person to want to do family medicine as you must not only run between the Scylla and Charybdis of your peer’s ridicule but you must also lash yourself to the mast of primary care against the siren call of more lucrative specialties.

It is no wonder then that mid-level providers can move effortlessly into the vast, unpopulated territory of primary care. They may not be residency trained and a typical graduating family practice resident may have three times the skill and knowledge but (to paraphrase the popular World War II joke) they may not have have more than the doctor but what they have they have over here.

For its part, the family medicine establishment has done everything in it’s power to ease the transition towards primary care by mid-levels. First it was the “gatekeeper” paradigm where the primary care doctor was the traffic cop directing most of his patients to the appropriate specialist for definitive treatment. Many things need to be referred, of course, but it doesn’t take an expensive degree to decide which specialist should see a patient. When you surrender your ability to diagnose and treat complicated patients, or lose your nerve, all that you have left is low-level primary care which really could be done by a motivated high-school student much less a Physician Assistant.

The current paradigm is “community medicine” where the traditional diagnostic and treatment function of the physician, the medical skill for which he is sought, is subordinated to the needs of society, “well-being,” and half a dozen other cockamamie functions which dilute the only advantage a residency trained Family Practitioner has over a social worker, much less a lean and hungry PA stalking wolf-like along the periphery of the sickly primary care herd.

Not to mention that those in the avant garde of Family Practice have fallen so deeply in love with team-based medicine where the physician is just an equal player in one of those goofy, non-competitive games where nobody loses and everybody wins that change will never come from that direction.

On the other hand, even many PAs don’t want to go into primary care preferring to subspecialize as physicians extenders. It seems every specialty group has it’s cadre of PAs and NPs rounding on stable patients, assisting in the operating room, or clearing out the backlog of routine clinic patients. In fact, as one of my readers once pointed out, Physician Assistants perform many of the same functions in private practice as residents do in academic medicine.

So no, despite the snowballing numbers of midlevel providers, physicians will not vanish from primary care. They may just have to practice at a higher level, eschewing the current trend to water down their medical knowledge with all of that creepy social work stuff but there are plenty of sick people out there. Not to mention that there is huge bolus of baby-boomers about to start getting really, really sick and they are going to want to see a doctor, not a school nurse.

But you can probably kiss the typical low-acuity practice goodbye.

2 thoughts on “Ask the Panda: More on Physician Assistants

  1. What statistics / studies are around that show that the more people between the physician and the patient (PA, NP, etc) the greater the number of medical mistakes and the worse the outcome.
    I read an article about this a few years ago, but cannot find it again.

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