As health reform derives growing demand for health care, physician assistants are playing a key role in serving the needs of New Mexicans in areas like primary care, pediatrics, surgery and other specialties.

More than 700 PAs are practicing in the state – many in rural and underserved areas. Of that number, 187 are graduates of the physician assistant program in the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, says Kathy Johnson, PA, the program’s academic coordinator.

“It’s an exciting time to be a PA on a health care team,” Johnson says. “We have an opportunity to make a difference for our patients. It is so satisfying to know, at the end of the day, that your work has true meaning to others.”

The profession will be in the spotlight during National PA Week (October 6-12), a celebration of the more than 100,000 providers around the country who are making a meaningful difference in patients' lives.

PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, write prescriptions, perform medical procedures, assist in surgery, counsel patients on preventive health care, coordinate patient care, make rounds in nursing homes and hospitals and conduct clinical research.

UNM’s PA students, who learn alongside medical students for the first year, are able to take advantage of rural clinical rotations that introduce them to underserved and disadvantaged patients and communities.

“Rural clinical rotations not only offer students substantial hands-on experience but they also provide students with greater insight as to the limitations some of our patients meet on a daily basis,” says Kris Caplan, PA, a Class of 2016 graduate.

People often lack access to care, healthy food, transportation, medical prevention and health literature, support and counseling services. “These rotations serve as a springboard to compassion and in directing future patient care,” Caplan says.

Physician assistants provide medical services delegated to them by the supervising physician, but physicians are not required to be onsite full-time when PAs are seeing patients. Collaboration is key – PAs and physicians work together as members of a health care team. On average, PAs see 60 patients per week.

The PA profession as a whole grew  36 percent between 2009 and 2014, due in part to the fact that most PA education programs run 27 months from start to finish, including an average of 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. The average age of a PA is 37 years old. About two-thirds are female .

UNM’s PA program graduated its first class in 1999. The program, administered in the Department of Family & Community Medicine, admits 17 students each year.

To learn more about National PA Week, please visit https://www.aapa.org/paweek/