Understanding the Differences Between Physician Assistants and Doctors
You walk into your doctor’s appointment as a new patient, and you’re greeted by a physician assistant (PA). Do you hesitate, or do you trust that you are in good hands? Like various other medical professionals, both PAs and doctors are a core component to your healthcare team. Here’s why!
A Physician Assistant – not “physician’s assistant”– is a highly trained medical professional who practices under the supervision of a doctor and shares many of the same responsibilities, depending on the setting. PAs can practice in a wide array of medical specialties, not just primary care, explains Megan Brody, PA-C, of Haddonfield Primary & Specialty Care.
“In the state of New Jersey, we are able to work autonomously, or independently, in our field and provide effective patient care,” said Brody. “Our training emphasizes patient education, chronic care management, and preventative care.”
Over the past few decades, the role of all advanced practice professionals (APP), including PAs, has become more and more critical to healthcare.
“There is a major shortage of clinicians, including doctors and nurses, to provide quality care to our communities,” explained Dr. Anthony Wehbe, Chief Population Health Executive at Jefferson Health New Jersey. “As the community continues to grow, doctors alone are unable to care for everybody. We need PAs and other APPs to work with our doctors, now, and into the future.”
PAs typically earn a master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies, comprised of time in the classroom and clinical rotations in various specialties, side-by-side with medical students.
Medical students are required to complete a more extensive education. They will complete four years of medical school, three to six years of a residency, and potentially, a one-to three-year fellowship, explains Dr. Wehbe.
“Even though their training may not be as rigorous, PAs are undoubtedly fit to treat patients, as they have passed their boards and maintain proper CME (continuing medical education) hours,” continued Dr. Wehbe.
In terms of responsibilities, both doctors and PAs can diagnose, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medication, order tests, and much more. When it comes to performing surgery, however, a PA must be accompanied by a doctor.
At times, there may be complex cases where PAs don’t have the same level of understanding or experience, and will advise a doctor to assume care of that patient, explains Dr. Wehbe.
“Ultimately, being a part of a patient’s healthcare team should always involve collaborating with doctors and other colleagues,” added Brody. “We do everything in the best interest of the patient. Patients may see whomever they are comfortable with, and they are entitled to seek a second opinion.”
Both Brody and Dr. Wehbe agree that, regardless of credentials, improving the lives of patients will always be an incredibly rewarding job.