In the mid-1960s, educators and physicians discovered a developing gap between the number of patients needing medical care and the number of primary care physicians available to care for them. To remedy the issue, the concept of a physician assistant (PA) was created, lauded by the medical community as a career flexible enough to match the ever-changing world around it.
But what is a PA, exactly? “A PA is a medical professional who has a graduate degree in a specialized training program, and they can provide physical diagnosis and medical treatment for patients,” explained Scott Black, MD, MS, who directs the UK College of Health Sciences physician assistant studies program.
Like a physician, a PA is responsible for the care and treatment of patients, but they have the added benefit of a more flexible career and a less time-consuming education. “Generally, after they’ve completed their four years of medical school, physicians go into a residency program,” Black said. “Once they’ve completed their residency, physicians then become board certified in a certain field, at which point they spend the rest of their careers working in that field.
“A PA’s training program is about thirty months long and there are no specialization programs. Their training is much briefer and much more portable,” Black continued. “And, if after three years you say, ‘I don’t really want to do pediatrics,’ you can switch and work with cardiothoracic surgery if you want to. The profession is much more flexible.”
UK’s physician assistant studies (PAS) program is actually among the oldest in the country. “The PA profession is relatively young,” Black said. “If you go back to the start, it was created in the early seventies, and our program started in the early seventies as well. It’s something we are proud of.”
The PAS program features a 29-month curriculum that emphasizes UK’s motto as the University for Kentucky. “Our program really targets the health needs of Kentucky, and our goal is to produce graduates who then can go out and address some of Kentucky’s most pressing health disparities,” Black said. “We focus on the social determinants of health, disease prevention, and take on a more holistic view of medicine rather than a reductionist view of health. I think our students really benefit from that.”
The curriculum, though short, is rigorous. “The first seventeen months of the program are mainly theoretical,” Black said. “It’s similar to other graduate programs, although, we do mix in some patient interaction and teach students how to take a history, how to perform a physical examination, how to make a differential diagnosis, etc.,—but all this instruction occurs in the classroom. Almost everything a student does in their final year is outside of the classroom.”
This is when the most crucial period of learning occurs. “Students actually see patients,” Black continued. “They work with preceptors (teachers and instructors), who are generally physicians or physician assistants. In that context, they see patients, make treatment recommendations, and learn how to practice medicine.”
After graduation, the opportunities with the degree are endless. “The good news is that PAs can be employed almost everywhere. Across Kentucky and across the United States, being a PA is one of the fastest growing professions in the country in the health care field,” Black said. “The career is very flexible—you can do anything from primary care to neurosurgery, all with the ability to switch it up. You’re not in one career path for the rest of your life unless you want to be.”
The future is also without borders for graduates of UK’s PA program. “We have PAs practicing in Kentucky, and we also have PAs who have opened hospitals in Kenya,” Black added. “This degree opens the doors to the world.”