National PA Week is October 6-12, recognizing the profession of Physician Assistants (PAs) and their contributions to the nation’s health. PAs are essential for the smooth delivery of patient care.

Today, there are a growing number of PAs with over 123,000 in the United States and counting. We invited Christine O’Neill, PA-C, Director of Advanced Practice Providers, to learn more about PAs and their role at the UVM Medical Center.

What is your role at the UVM Medical Center?

O’Neill:  I’ve been a practicing PA at UVM for the last 15 years in the areas of emergency medicine and interventional radiology providing direct patient care. Two years ago, I moved into a new role in the organization titled Director of Advanced Practice Providers. In this role, I serve as a resource on advanced practice providers for the organization. That includes PAs, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, CRNAs and anesthesiologist assistants.

What is a PA?

O’Neill: A PA is a licensed medical provider who provides direct care to patients. So, we evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients on teams with physicians and other providers. We can order and interpret tests, prescribe medication and perform minor procedures. PAs also assist on major surgeries and are involved in all aspects of a patient’s care in the hospital and in the office.

What are some different roles PAs have?

O’Neill: PAs work pretty much in all specialties and in all settings. So, here at the UVM Medical Center, we have PAs in most of our medical and surgical subspecialties. We have PAs practicing in our primary care offices, in our emergency department, in Urgent Care. They’re working in the operating rooms; they’re in the ICU.

What settings can PAs work in?

O’Neill: PAs can work in any setting. You’ll find PAs working in academic medical centers like the UVM Medical Center, in community hospitals, in community health centers, in private physician offices, urgent care centers, in prisons, rural health clinics. There are even PAs practicing in the White House.

What education or training is required for a PA?

O’Neill: PA education is at the graduate level, and applicants must have both a bachelor’s degree and significant direct patient care experience. Programs are equivalent to three academic years and the curriculum is modeled on medical school education. So, it includes more than 1,000 classroom hours and more than 2,000 hours of observed clinical rotations and all PA school follow the same curricular blueprint.

PA students spend time rotating in family practice, internal medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, psychiatry/mental health, pediatrics and OB/GYN. Then, most PAs take electives in other specialties that they might be interested in practicing in once they graduate.

PAs must pass a rigorous certification exam before they can practice. They then must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every 2 years and pass a recertification exam every 10 years.

What are the benefits of seeing a PA?

O’Neill: PAs are members of the healthcare team so, they help increase access to care. That could mean that they are serving as a patient’s primary care provider in an area where it’s difficult to recruit enough physicians to take care of patients. It can also help patients get in to see a specialist sooner by having a PA do an initial evaluation, order tests and imaging studies and then help to determine what course the patient’s treatment should take. This can mean getting in to an orthopedic surgery office for evaluation of a problem by a PA, for instance, much sooner than they can get an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. And that means that they can get the treatment faster than they might otherwise.

How many PAs are here at the UVM Medical Center?

O’Neill: Right now, we have about 85 PAs across almost all of our departments.

How do you think the PA profession will grow in

the years to come?

O’Neill: It’s a growing field because there are physician shortages in many areas geographically and in many specialties and so along with nurse practitioners, PAs help to fill the gap.

We like to thank Christine O’Neill, Director of Advanced Practice Providers at the UVM Medical Center for providing us with information on the profession of Physician Assistants and the role they play at the UVM Medical Center.


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