How Emory is meeting the need for physician assistants

By Mary Loftus | Health Sciences Update | Oct. 5, 2015

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Emory physician assistant (PA) students assembled on the lawn of the School of Medicine in Fall 2014.

Physician assistants (PAs) are more in demand than ever, says Emory Physician Assistant Program director Maha Lund, DHSc, PA-C. "Our students don't graduate until December, and already employers are asking to meet them. It speaks to the need out there."

Emory's PA program, one of 200 in the country, recently ranked third in U.S. News & World Report's 2016 "America's Best Graduate Schools" guide.

The demand for advanced practice providers like PAs and nurse practitioners has skyrocketed in the past decade. An estimated 4,000 PAs in Georgia and more than 100,000 in the US are currently board certified to practice medicine as part of a physician-directed team.

PAs are certified to diagnose and treat common diseases and can provide preventive health services and patient education. They also can order and interpret tests and write prescriptions and can perform "at least 80% of the responsibilities of a physician," says Lund.

Applicants to Emory's program are growing substantially, says Lund. More than 1,500 applicants (average age, 28) applied for 54 spots in the current Emory PA class (the 28-month program accepts 54 students each year.) But applicants for the class beginning in 2016 already total 2,200, and the portal is open till October 1. This represents a 50% increase, she says, while applications nationally have increased just 25%.

And the growth is not just in quantity but quality as well. While applicants are required to have a minimum of 2,000 health care hours before entering the program, the class that just started in August has more than 7,000 hours of such experience, says Lund.

When students finish their training, they have a wide range of options. Currently, about one-third of PAs work in primary care, with the rest in specialty medicine. As to locations, 38% practice in hospital settings, another 38% work in physician practices, and the rest are in community health centers, freestanding surgical facilities, nursing homes, school- or college-based sites, industrial settings, and correctional institutions.

Maha Lund

Maha Lund, Director, Emory Physician Assistant Program

"A physician with a PA can get so much more done and see so many more patients," says Lund. "PAs are an important part of the solution to current and projected clinician shortages.”

Lund, whose clinical background is in hospital medicine, joined Emory in July 2014 from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, where she was program director of the Department of PA Studies. She is a distinguished fellow of the American Academy of PAs and has been recognized by the National Honor Society for Allied Health Professionals.

Emory's PA program has a direct link to the beginnings of the profession—the late Eugene Stead, known as founder of the field, was an Emory undergraduate and medical school alumnus, an Emory faculty member, chair of the department of medicine, and dean of the medical school before moving to Duke in 1947. The Emory PA program was founded by Stead's colleague, renowned cardiologist J. Willis Hurst, in 1967.

Like other PA programs around the country, Emory’s observes PA Week from Oct 6-12. Lund says the PA program will celebrate with service to underserved patient populations, information sessions about the profession, and a campus blood drive.