Veterans are at the core of the PA profession

Nov 11, 2013, 06:00 ET from American Academy of Physician Assistants

ALEXANDRIA, Va., Nov. 11, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The physician assistant (PA) profession was born on the battlefield of war, and now PAs are on the front lines of medicine.

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), there are approximately 10,900 PAs in the workforce that are veterans, active duty or retired military, or in the National Guard or Reserves—comprising approximately 11 percent of the entire PA workforce. The PA profession was originally born among Navy corpsmen to help meet a shortage of primary care providers and the first PA class graduated from the Duke University PA program on Oct. 6, 1967. Today, PAs practice medicine, perform surgery and increase access to high-quality healthcare.

"We are incredibly proud of our profession's military roots and also the many PAs who are veterans," said AAPA President Lawrence Herman, MPA, PA-C, DFAAPA. "Skills honed in the military and education in general medicine and practicing surgery prepares PAs to be extremely nimble, positioning them very well to address an influx of millions of new patients entering the healthcare system."

Research from AAPA shows that PAs with military experience typically practice in orthopedics, emergency medicine or family medicine (with and without urgent care) and have 18 years of experience. Approximately 30 percent of all PAs – veterans and civilians – work in primary care and many may be the sole medical provider in rural and underserved areas. PAs practice medicine similarly to physicians including conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses, ordering and interpreting lab tests, performing procedures, providing patient counseling and education and prescribing medications.

PAs were named one of three primary care providers under the Affordable Care Act, and they were recently recognized by the World Health Organization for their delivery of high-quality care.

Veterans develop a passion for the profession

A former U.S. Army captain, Benjamin Olmedo, PA-C, said he first encountered a PA over radio communications. His patrol's medic had been stung by a scorpion while away from their base, leaving treatment to the soldiers via satellite radio. "It was the battalion PA who calmly talked us through the episode and explained what to do. I was always interested in medicine and that night I decided I wanted to be the PA on the other end."

Upon returning to civilian life, Olmedo enrolled in the Yale School of Medicine's physician assistant program and graduated in 2011. Now, he is a PA in primary care, serving patients at the Chickaloon Village Health Clinic in Chickaloon, Alaska, and the Valley Native Primary Care Center in Wasilla. "I can't think of a better job out there that I could be doing or would rather be doing," he said. "What I do every day in Alaska is why I decided to become a PA."

Vicki Chan-Padgett was a medic in the Air Force in the early 1970s before she became a PA. "At the time I became a PA, we were not commissioned but were promoted to a senior enlisted rank. There was pressure to prove that we could be a great officer as well as a superb medical provider," she said.

She now serves as director of the Touro University Nevada PA program in Las Vegas and established a clinic inside the local Shade Tree shelter for battered and abused women and their children. She also takes time to volunteer on medical missions to developing nations.

Schools, Government Places Emphasis on Transitioning Veterans to PAs

Veterans have found that their military training and experience helped pave the way to becoming a PA. More than 7,000 new PAs graduate annually from 181 accredited programs and many of them are veterans or have military experience.

Dan Thibodeau, associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School's PA program, said that 15 percent of his program's 139 students are veterans. "PAs are not on the sidelines when it comes to patient care, this is a very active profession," Thibodeau said. "A lot of people who have been in the military have been given a lot of responsibilities in their careers. The responsibilities that PAs have, what we do and provide for patients, I think that resonates with veterans." 

His program was one of 12 recipients of grants from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 to provide financial relief to veterans pursuing careers as PAs in primary care.

MEDEX Northwest, the University of Washington School of Medicine's physician assistant training program, opened a training site in September 2013 as part of a national initiative to increase educational and employment opportunities for returning military veterans and to boost the primary care workforce in rural and underserved areas. The MEDEX program accepts and educates the highest percentage of military veterans among civilian training programs.

"The Tacoma training site creates an opportunity for more students to become physician assistants who will provide increased access to healthcare," said Ruth Ballweg, MEDEX Northwest section chief. "This expansion of our program allows us to continue our 45-year history of selecting students from military and rural backgrounds who make tremendous contributions to the patients they serve."

Special Programs Welcome Vets with Open Arms

In addition to MEDEX Northwest, the Vet-Up© program at South College in Knoxville, TN was designed to train veterans for a career as a PA.

The Vet-Up© program was created to offer veterans who were medics and corpsman who had provided lifesaving healthcare skills in the United States Armed Forces the opportunity to continue their professional education with the goal of becoming a PA.

The program bridges the gap between military healthcare experience and the civilian graduate medical education of a PA program, adding to the extensive military training and real-world medical experience these individuals already have.

To date, there have been 27 Vet-Up program participants, of which 14 have already graduated. In fact, many of the Vet-Up© faculty members are veterans themselves.

SOURCE American Academy of Physician Assistants