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In an effort to address the critical shortage of physicians—especially in the field of primary care—forecast for the coming decade, the School of Medicine recently announced a new Master of Science Physician Assistant (PA) Program, to be administered by MED’s Division of Graduate Medical Sciences.
The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the United States will face a shortage of 91,500 doctors by 2020, up from the 62,900 forecast for 2015. The reasons for the shortage? An aging baby boomer generation that will require increasing medical resources and the health insurance coverage to some 32 million currently uninsured Americans made possible by the Affordable Care Act by 2019.
Physician assistants are licensed to practice medicine as part of a team that includes physicians. They have become a growing part of medical practices, along with nurse practitioners, largely because the bill for their services is less than that for physicians. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of PA jobs is expected to grow by 39 percent between 2008 (74,800) and 2018 (nearly 104,000).
“The United States needs a larger health professional workforce to care for aging baby boomers, and the demand for midlevel medical providers is increasing rapidly,” says Karen Antman, MED dean and Medical Campus provost and John Sanderson Professor of Health Services. “The currently available PA programs are turning down very qualified candidates for lack of slots.”
Like their medical school counterparts, physician assistant students enrolled in the new BU program will learn medical sciences, clinical sciences, and clinical skills. The 28-month curriculum, divided into seven semesters, will consist of 12 months of traditional lectures and seminar sessions, followed by 16 months of hands-on clinical education in hospitals and clinics. PA students will also be required to submit a thesis proposal.
Physician assistants are educated as generalists, says Mary L. Warner, a MED assistant professor of medicine and program director of the Physician Assistant Program. “Unlike physicians, physician assistants change specialties at least three times over the course of their career,” Warner says. “The most common way PAs learn to practice in new specialties is the apprentice model, with on-the-job training by their supervising physicians.” While PAs are not required to do residencies after earning their degree, short-term residency programs in specialties like obstetrics are available.
Physician assistants perform many of the same tasks as doctors. Among their responsibilities are performing physical exams, ordering lab tests and diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medications and developing treatment plans for patients, and when working in surgical settings, assisting in surgery.
First launched in 1965 at Duke University, the physician assistant profession was initially intended to address the primary care shortage in rural and underserved areas. The BU degree program is designed to educate PAs who will care for a diverse population of patients in a variety of health care settings.
BU’s PA program will offer several innovations not found at most other schools. Students will benefit from a flipped classroom, where professors assign video lectures and online reading to be completed at home, with classroom time reserved for problem solving and answering questions. The anatomy lab, says Warner, will offer a full dissection lab, unusual for PA programs, and a physiology lab, also not widely available at other programs, as well as a strong research curriculum. “In our partnerships with Boston Medical Center and the VA Boston Healthcare System,” she says, “the clinical education will focus on learning to care for patients from vulnerable populations.”
Warner says that more than 1,000 people have applied for the 28 slots in the inaugural class. She attributes the strong interest in the program to the shortage of primary care providers and the strong projected growth prospects for the profession, as well as MED’s national reputation. Those accepted into the program will be notified by December 1 and will begin their studies in April.
More information about BU’s Physician Assistant Program can be found here.