Creating time for doctors to spend with patients
Premier Surgical Associates surgeon Dr. Roland Weast (right) pauses for a moment with South College graduate and physician assistant Lauren Loveday at North Knoxville Medical Center. Physician assistants are gaining importance as they help doctors find mo
A primary goal of healthcare reform is improving patient care. With patients outnumbering the hours in a day for busy physicians, how can physicians find time to improve patient care?
Today’s physician assistant is an important part of the solution, saving physicians as much as two to three days worth of time that can be spent on patient care.
Lauren Loveday, a recent graduate of South College, is now a licensed physician assistant with Premier Surgical Associates.
“The main focus of my job is to free up the surgeons to spend more time in the operating room,” said Loveday. “When a patient needs surgery, we want to get that done as soon as possible. It’s important that physicians have time to do what they do best.”
Physician assistants are formally trained and licensed to practice medicine under the direction of physicians and surgeons. They examine patients, take histories, make rounds on post-op patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, consult with patients and provide treatment. Taking on a primary care role, physician assistants are becoming an extremely important asset in today’s medical practices.
“A great PA is one who is a contributing member of the medical team,” said South College Dean of Physician Assistant Studies Dr. Ken Harbert. “They help coordinate, collaborate, communicate, and offer compassionate care for patients and family members. Some of the most important skills we teach are critical thinking and how to work with physicians as part of a medical team.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment rates for physician assistants are expected to rise 30 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than the average for all occupations. The focus on primary care as the basis of the healthcare system makes this position even more important.
The South College Master of Health Science Physician Assistant Studies program is one of only five accredited Physician Assistant programs in the state of Tennessee. Although accreditation is considered voluntary, it is essential for practice in the U.S. and to be eligible to sit for the licensure certifying exam.
According to Harbert, South College receives more than 1,200 applications for 68 openings each year, attracting applicants from all over the country with a variety of backgrounds. Some are former nurses, paramedics, and medics or corpsmen with significant medical skills; others have little or no previous medical experience.
“The mix creates a well-balanced class and makes it more interesting for all,” he said.
The South College PA program is an intensive 27-month course modeled on a medical school curriculum. A 15-month didactic phase emphasizes early “hands-on” medical education and comprehensive course work in patient assessment and clinical medicine.
“With our state-of-the-art simulation lab and life-like simulation mannequin, students get realistic, real-time training that prepares them to practice in the workplace,” said Harbert. “Our small class size and experienced faculty allow us to place a strong emphasis on communication. It is critical that a physician assistant communicate with the physician in the same language.”
Following the didactic phase, a 12-month clinical phase places students in the field in eight 6-week rotations in nationally recognized healthcare centers throughout the region. The first seven rotations are pre-set in the fields of family practice, pediatrics, emergency medicine, general surgery, internal medicine, behavioral medicine, and women’s health. The final rotation is elective, allowing students to revisit a field or choose another that is of particular interest to them.
“The program takes a lot of dedication and hard work,” said Loveday. “It definitely interferes with your life while you are there, but it is worth it. The challenges you face and critical thinking skills you gain at South College prepare you for work afterward – and for the boards.”
Although she started out in pre-pharmacy, Loveday earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in history at the University of Tennessee. “I wanted to go into the field of medicine and realized very early that I wanted more patient interaction than I would get in the field of pharmacy. South College had a new physician assistant program that was receiving a lot of praise, so I started in October 2009 and graduated in December 2011. I was fortunate that my favorite clinical rotation led to a great job.”
“We had an open position, but were looking for someone with experience,” said Premier surgeon Dr. Roland Weast. “As it turned out, we were so impressed with Lauren that we hired her right out of school.”
For Loveday, every day is different. Depending on the patient load, she may help in the clinic, making rounds, or assisting one of the surgeons in the operating room. Several surgeons depend on her help to keep things moving.
“I was nervous at first because caring for the health and wellbeing of our patients is a huge responsibility,” said Loveday. “But I definitely felt clinically prepared for my new position.”
“Having a physician assistant is a tremendous help,” said Weast. “A well-trained PA can really add hours to my day. Lauren has been a great help, and South College provided her with a solid foundation.”
Harbert said it is not unusual for local physicians to recommend candidates. “We’ve had referrals from several physicians for nurses, technicians, and others that want to go on to become physician assistants,” he said. “It is a real feather in our cap that these physicians recognize the excellence we strive for in this program. Our goal is to train highly qualified physician assistants to help meet the supply and demand for our medical community.”
As our country continues to look for more effective and efficient ways to improve patient care, physician assistants are quickly becoming part of the solution.