How physician assistants improve healthcare outcomes

Physician assistants date back to the Vietnam war when Dr. Eugene Stead recognized a need for help and a talent pool in returning veterans.  Dr. Stead wanted an assistant that could really help him with patient overload. Someone who could write prescriptions, see patients, and recognize which cases required his direct input, and which cases could be handled with little direction. The program quickly evolved from training Vietnam medic veterans to nurses, respiratory therapists, paramedics, and many other healthcare professionals.

Training these professionals to complete most tasks their supervising physician could, quickly led to increased efficiency in healthcare, and lower case loads for physicians. Now, by integrating successfully with healthcare teams, physician assistants provide patients with increased access and care.

But, outside of the military, only four provinces in Canada allow physician assistants to practice in the way they were trained. However, given the correct integration, physician assistants can bridge gaps in much needed areas across Canada and improve our healthcare system overall.

This is why the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants is calling for the government of Canada to expand their role in healthcare. And they are right to do so. There are many ways physician assistants can improve the Canadian system.

What is a physician assistant?

With the exclusion of surgery, which they may only assist in, a physician assistant can perform most duties their supervising physician can. Physician assistants can work in any medical discipline and are often an important part of a comprehensive healthcare team.

While physician assistants often train in the same model as physicians, the program takes less time to complete. The program also trains them as generalists, with a strong focus on communication and other people skills.

Essentially, a physician assistant is trained to provide primary care to patients and lessen physician workloads.

Increase bedside care

The main skills physician assistants are recommended to have for success are: compassion, active listening, communication, and problem solving. This is because they serve as a primary caregiver who can prioritize cases for a supervising physician and lead a healthcare team.

Physicians often have high caseloads and little time. They are unable to focus on the less serious cases and may come across as distracted at the bedside. Given their workload, this is understandable.

Physician assistants are there to interact with the patients and decide which member of the healthcare team, including their supervising physician, needs to see the patient next. This improves the patient experience as they are given more time to explain their needs and concerns.

Physician assistants have strong people skills that help them communicate effectively with patients, which can help with diagnosis. These skills also make physician assistants strong team leaders and organizers in healthcare.

Improve senior care

It’s no secret that Canada has an issue with our aging population. By 2063, Statistics Canada expects Canada’s senior population will reach about 25% of our total. With this increase in senior population comes an increase in government spending. Dedicated physician assistants’ programs can help ease the financial strain on healthcare in this regard.

In terms of resources, physician assistants improve the quality of long-term care facilities and allow seniors to stay in their own homes longer.

Physician assistants can work onsite in long-term care facilities. This direct interaction with patients means that serious medical issues can be identified and resolved quickly and effectively. This can lead to a drop in readmission rates, and frees up strained hospital resources. Physician assistants can also be the first point of contact with pharmacists, psychologists, other healthcare professionals, and family members. This communication is key in providing effective senior care.

With more physician assistants comes a greater ability for home visits. Physician assistants are increasingly doing home visits to check in on patients and provide support and advice for seniors living at home. So, seniors can stay at home longer, and feel healthier while there, leading to a decrease in hospital visits and admissions to long-term care facilities.

Increase access

For people in larger cities, access to specialists can take time. There are long waiting lists, and patients can often be pushed down these lists if someone with a more serious need takes their place. For Canadians and Americans in rural communities, this problem with access is an even bigger challenge, as patients often must travel incredibly far to meet with a specialist.

Physician assistants can be named for their medical specialty. For example, there are general practice, orthopedic, and general surgery physician assistant classifications.  Since physician assistants require less training than physicians, and can report information back to their supervising physician, they can be placed in smaller hospitals, in more remote locations, to provide primary care and consultation to patients.

This helps people in both cities and rural communities.

In cities, patients are seen sooner, and serious issues can be addressed more quickly. The physician assistant can provide updates to their supervisor if there is a change in the patient’s need.  

In rural communities, physician assistants can be stationed in areas where there is a need for more healthcare professionals. Patients can have closer and more frequent access to medical consultation and prescriptions, and only need to travel for more serious procedures.

Reduce wait times

The Manitoba Centre for Health Policy recently conducted a study that shows the average wait time in a Winnipeg emergency room is 4.4 hours. Although, this time can increase significantly as emergency rooms normally operate above 100% capacity. Throughout Canada, these wait time averages can grow up to 8.5 hours.

Physicians assistants are trained to be primary caregivers. Since they can write prescriptions and provide almost any care their supervising physician can, this reduces a physician’s workload significantly. This reduce in workload, as well as increased efficiency with the triage process, shows that physicians assistants can reduce wait times in emergency rooms.

Decrease physician burnout

Physician assistants play a huge role in decreasing physician burnout, which is becoming increasingly common in Canada. This burnout has also led to an increase in depression among physicians, and more lapses in professionalism.

This one is easy to explain. Since physician assistants work as primary caregivers and can take over the less serious cases from their supervisors’ workload, physicians are able to spend more time on the complex issues and have a better work-life balance.

Physicians can reduce their workloads, focus their energy where it’s needed most, and still have time to relax at home.  

Reduce healthcare costs

A study by the Conference Board of Canada shows that physicians assistants improve healthcare outcomes, reduce wait times, and give better access while still saving money in the long term.

Physician assistants can be trained more quickly and serve a diverse patient load to support a supervising physician. They do this at a lower cost to the government. In fact, in the United States, where physician assistants are more common, some hospitals have seen a per-patient cost decrease of up to 30%.

So, physicians assistants enable doctors to serve more patients at a lower cost.

To improve patient outcomes, wait times, and access, physician assistants can play a key role in Canadian healthcare. The problem is, we need governments to acknowledge their value and continue to integrate physician assistants into our healthcare teams.

By: Jake Reedeler, Contributor

Photo by Luis Melendez on Unsplash