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How certified PAs can combat physician burnout


Physician assistants can help physicians manage patients, their schedule, and work-life balance.

Editor’s Note: Physicians Practice’s blog features contributions from members of the medical community. These blogs are an opportunity for professionals to engage with readers about a topic that is top of mind, whether it is practice management, experiences with patients, the industry, medicine in general, or healthcare reform. The opinions are that of the writers and no not necessarily reflect the opinions of Physicians Practice or UBM.

Clinicians make sacrifices that can weigh on our happiness-from exercise habits to relationships. As medical providers, we must ask ourselves: Are we fit to care for others if we don’t first care for ourselves? It’s a question that’s centered around the troubling crisis of physician burnout, a pervasive problem among providers plagued by stress, depression, and exhaustion.

A 2018 article in The Atlantic, “The Burnout Crisis in American Medicine,” asks whether burnout is behind the “historic” physician shortage. Certified Physician Assistants (PAs) can help address the issues of provider shortages and physician burnout. Full-time PAs treat an average of 73 patients per week, according to the latest Statistical Report on Certified PAs published by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. We often accept same-day and walk-in appointments, thereby decreasing physician workloads and improving patient satisfaction.

There are more than 123,000 certified PAs in rural and urban clinics, private offices, large hospital systems, and even the White House. Here are four ways for PAs to help physicians manage patients:

  • Provide some of the same services as physicians. Certified PAs must pass a rigorous exam to practice and, like physicians, have to pass written assessments every 10 years and complete continuing medical education every two years. We order and review lab tests, prescribe medications, make referrals, and counsel patients.
  • Handle administrative and preventive tasks and visits. PAs can educate themselves about risk-adjusted coding, quality improvement, Medicare Annual Wellness Visits and preventive medicine, and prep charts. This can relieve physicians from some of the important operational tasks while increasing the revenue to the practice and the quality of preventive care provided to the patient. 
  • Focus on a niche specialty within the practice. PAs can become the resident expert in such care as diabetes or women’s health. By focusing the PA’s visits on specialized diagnoses, patient care will typically improve and the physician is free to focus on more acute or complex cases. PAs also enhance their skills in that area, which can lead to higher job satisfaction.
  • Addressing specific visit types. PAs are well-suited to focus on procedures, preoperative assessments, counseling, and consenting patients and managing postoperative care.

Teamwork is the best way to deliver exceptional healthcare and decrease burnout. Orchestrating a healthcare team requires more time initially to define roles and responsibilities of the individual practitioners, but it can lead to improved care, care plans, and patient engagement. Once there is a level of trust and understanding among the group, there is greater reliance on each other to provide appropriate care and a reduced burden on the individual provider.

Physicians can take steps to mitigate the effects of burnout by relying on healthcare partners who can free up time for them to focus on direct patient care. Physicians, and indeed all clinicians, must recognize the power in self-care. That means taking the necessary time off to restore physical and psychological health through exercise, a healthy diet, practicing mindfulness, and pursing hobbies/interests outside of work. The self-care we perform may reconnect us with the reason we decided to pursue medicine in the first place.

Beth Grivett, PA-C, has been certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistant (NCCPA) since 1995. She worked for 20 years in family medicine at major health systems and clinics throughout southern California before joining Blue Shield of California as an accountable care organization senior clinical program manager.

This blog is published in partnership with the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

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