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March 04, 2014 06:15 PM

Need For Physician Assistants Grows

Sioux Falls, SD

When you schedule a doctor's appointment, chances are you've been asked if it's ok you see a physician assistant or nurse practitioner instead. These medical workers are helping fill a nationwide doctor shortage.

Physician assistant students at the University of South Dakota are learning how to diagnose and treat medical conditions. The students already have a bachelor's degree and have completed the recommended science courses. Many also have experience in the healthcare field.

"After doing ultrasound for ten years, I wanted to find ways to advance my career and I wanted to find a career that would give me a good balance of work and home life," student Jessica Failla said.

Failla is one of 25 students in her class. The program is 24 months long.

"You really have to study. A typical school day is normally 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then I go home and study for probably another four hours every night," Failla said.

While the program is intense, USD has expanded its class size from 20 students to 25 to meet a growing need.

"There's a significant number of programs that have expanded and a significant number of new programs around the country, as well," USD Physician Assistant Studies Program Chair Wade Nilson said.

Nilson says the need for physician assistants will continue to grow because of an aging population and aging medical provider workforce, along with the Affordable Care Act.

"Which opens up the door to millions of Americans who otherwise hadn't had access to insurance in the past," Nilson said.

After graduating, physician assistants are able to do about 85 percent of what doctors do.

"Essentially physician assistants are doing the same kinds of things - diagnosing, treating, prescribing medications or interpreting lab tests," Nilson said.

Nilson says once this group of students are finished with the program, they should have no problem finding a job.

While physician assistants do work similar to a doctor, they do work under the supervision of physicians. They also can't perform surgeries by themselves.

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