A Brief History of the Physician Assistant Profession

History of the Physician Assistant Profession

Physician Assistant, or PA, is an exciting healthcare profession celebrating its golden anniversary in 2017, but it’s showing no signs of old age. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, opportunities for PAs are expected to grow 30 percent by 2024, which is a much faster rate than most occupations.

What are the origins of the Physician Assistant profession, and why has it continued to be such an in-demand position? Here’s a closer look at this challenging and rewarding career along with the events that have shaped it.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

The American Academy of PAs (AAPA) defines Physician Assistant as “a nationally certified and state-licensed medical professional” who works in teams with physicians and other healthcare providers. After graduation and certification, PAs continue an ongoing course of education during the extent of their career.

While “Assistant” may sound secondary, PAs are skilled healthcare providers who make significant contributions to patient care. PAs are trained in general medicine with the ability to diagnose, treat and prescribe medicine, either on their own or in collaboration with a healthcare team.

The Birth of the Physician Assistant Profession

While the seeds of the PA profession were sown in 1940 in the rural South Carolina practice of Dr. Amos Johnson, who trained employee Henry Treadwell to become his assistant, the formal position developed in response to the critical shortage of medical personnel in the late 1950s.

In 1961 Dr. Charles Hudson, the one-time president of the American Medical Association (AMA), saw an opportunity to solve two problems by employing medics and corpsmen returning from war as “mid-level providers” supplementing the existing body of medical personnel. These people had the advantage of first-hand experience working with patients in the high-stress arena of the battlefield.

Dr. Hudson’s vision became reality four years later when Dr. Eugene Stead, Jr. of Duke University Medical Center launched the first Physician Assistant educational program in the United States, incorporating the fast-track medical training used during World War II. The initial class consisted of four former Navy medical corpsman, with three of them graduating in 1967.

Physician Assistants Become an Integral Part of Healthcare

A 1965 article in Reader’s Digest about the healthcare industry made mention of Duke University’s fledgling program, triggering a number of inquiries from ex-military corpsman. The school began hosting national Physician Assistant conferences and ultimately formed the American Association of Physician Assistants, now known as the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

As the Physician Assistant profession continued to grow, it was formally recognized by the AMA in 1971 and the organization began working on national certification criteria and standardization of practice characteristics. In 1974 the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) was established and is still the only PA certification organization in the United States.

Physician Assistants in the Modern Medical Landscape

Today the AAPA states that there are more than 115,500 certified PAs across the country, with patient interactions numbering more than 350 million. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 recognized PAs as primary care providers, along with Physicians and Nurse Practitioners, and empowered PAs to lead patient medical teams.

The public has also come to view PAs as an important part of quality healthcare. A 2014 Harris poll found that 93 percent of respondents believe that PAs:

  • Are trusted healthcare providers.
  • Provide excellent patient service.
  • Will be part of the solution to the shortage of healthcare providers.

There’s no doubt that Physician Assistants have taken a valuable role in healthcare solutions, both individually and in tandem with other healthcare practitioners.

Are you seeking a new Physician Assistant position? Consider Elliot Health System.

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