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Aug 8 2019

Celebrating the continued development of the PA profession in North Carolina

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Image for Celebrating the continued development of the PA profession in North Carolina I recently had the opportunity to reunite with six PAs I trained with, a group of women I have now known for more than 40 years. As we caught up and reminisced, it struck me that our group’s experiences as physician assistants tell a compelling story about the growth and development of what is still a relatively new profession.

Looking around the table, I noted the sheer variety of PA practice represented. One colleague provides long-term care to ventilator-dependent patients with multiple chronic health conditions. Another is in a busy family medicine practice. One started a mobile program that provides specialty care for pulmonary disorders to patients in primary care offices. One works in orthopedics providing care from the office to the operating room, and another is on the cutting edge of Alzheimer’s research. Still another has spent the last 39 years at one of the country’s top institutions in cardiology and cardiothoracic surgery. Despite many changes over the years, PAs remain team members who strive to provide the best care in collaboration with physicians and other professionals across all disciplines.

My own 39-year career has afforded the opportunities to work in surgery, medicine, PA education, physical rehabilitation, neurology and, for the past nine years, as a staff member in NCMB’s Office of the Medical Director reviewing quality of care cases for the Board. What a humbling journey it has been.

It would have been hard to imagine such a varied professional experience when I was just starting out as a PA, at a time when I had to explain at every turn just what in the world that was. Today, PAs can be found in virtually every area of practice and our presence in the health care delivery system is growing steadily, as more educational institutions bring accredited PA programs on board. In North Carolina, the licensed PA population has sustained annual growth of about 7 percent in each of the past several years, and the Board currently licenses more than 7,300 PAs. I am happy to note that patients seem to embrace PAs’ contributions: a 2014 Harris Poll study found 93 percent of respondents agreed that PAs are “trusted healthcare providers” and improve access to care.

Many people know the PA profession began in North Carolina. The first training program, established in 1965 at Duke University by Dr. Eugene Stead, graduated a class of three PAs in 1967. By 1980 there were more than 50 PA programs; Today there are more than 250. North Carolina currently boasts eleven programs and more universities in the state are pursuing accreditation.

PA programs have grown in depth as well as number. When I trained, my alma mater in Pennsylvania offered a four-year bachelor’s program, a unique opportunity for those of us needing more than the standard twoyear programs offered at the time. It now offers a five-year master’s level program. In accordance with standards set by Accreditation Review Commission, all PA programs must offer a graduate degree by 2020.

One of my personal goals in my work for NCMB has been to offer to address each graduating PA class in North Carolina, to provide information on PA licensure and practice. Last year I visited ten of the state’s 11 programs. The hope is to help PAs avoid early missteps in practice, thus preventing regulatory difficulties that can follow a PA throughout his or her career. It is truly an honor to be a part of this profession and a pleasure to see PAs continue to develop and flourish in this great state. To learn more about PAs, consider visiting the websites of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the NC Academy of Physician Assistants or the accrediting body, Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

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