Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners and Health Care reform

This post focuses on a key question in health care reform -- will there be enough doctors to go around? With plans to extend insurance to some 47 million people, the current primary care doctor shortage will only get worse, many say. One solution could be to increase the role of nurse practitioners.

The piece generated positive feedback and lots of interesting responses from readers across the spectrum about primary care, nursing and the reform debate. I also heard from a group of providers who felt overlooked: physician assistants.

I hope folks don't see this as an intentional slight, as the story was a narrowly-focused piece looking at one slice of the health care debate. But it is true that using more physician assistants is among the solutions being tossed around to help fill the primary care gaps. And some observers think they could play an important role.

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a doctor and diagnose illness, order and interpret tests and, in most states, can prescribe medication. Training includes graduation from an accredited physician assistant program and passage of a certification exam.

Locally, more than 1,800 physician assistants are practicing in Maryland -- about 90 percent of those in the Baltimore and Washington suburbs, according to the Maryland Academy of Physician Assistants. Like nurse practitioners, physician assistants work in a variety of disciplines, from primary care to specialty fields.

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