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Physician Assistants Ideal for Patient Nutrition Education


Experienced physician assistants can help physicians counsel their patients on better nutrition.

"Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food!"
- Hippocrates

Disease self-management is an essential component of care for patients with most chronic conditions. This requires a clear understanding of the disease process, medications used, and the practical tasks they need to accomplish to care for themselves. Health education is, therefore, a vital preventive element in the patient visit.

What stands in the way of that critical health education process? The usual suspects include money (limited or non-existent reimbursement for education services) and time (lack of time to counsel patients, which is also related to the funding challenge). Another common barrier, though - and one relatively easily addressed - is lack of confidence or skill in counseling among healthcare providers.

As a certified physician assistant (PA-C) with 10 years of experience and advanced training in nutrition, I know that PAs have enormous potential as nutrition counselors and patient advocates.

Certified PAs practice medicine but are also taught to treat the whole patient. They can provide straightforward, clinically relevant information on basic nutritional information - for example, how fats affect lipids, the evidence behind low glycemic load diets, the cardio-protective effects of key micronutrients, and much more.

If you agree that this sort of patient education is important but also face the challenges of time and money in your practice, it makes sense for certified PAs to be the focal point for your practice's nutritional programs; especially if you already rely on PAs to provide continuity of care and management of chronic care patients. Using patients with heart disease as an example, some ways PAs can help include:

• Identifying patients with key risk factors for heart disease who could possibly benefit from dietary and lifestyle recommendations;

• Assessing the evidence for nutritional options for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease;

• Describing the fundamental components of a healthy diet, like the Mediterranean and DASH diets, to help patients make better dietary choices;

• Discussing the potential risks and benefits of dietary supplements commonly used in the prevention and/or treatment of heart disease to help patients make better healthcare choices; and

• Alerting patients to possible nutrient depletions that can result from the use of prescription drugs for heart disease.

Certified PAs are highly educated, usually at the master's level. They must pass a rigorous, national certification exam to be licensed by medical boards in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Like physicians, they maintain certification through substantive continuing medical education and by passing a national recertification exam every 10 years.

Health education provided to patients can reduce mortality and morbidity of chronic disease. The best strategy for health and resiliency is to design a nutritional plan for patients that address their specific health needs, while encouraging a whole food diet that does not deny them the pleasures of eating. PA-Cs can give your patients the knowledge and understanding necessary to do just that.

Patricia Brims, PA-C, has been certified for 10 years by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). She has worked in holistic medicine, acute care, pediatrics, emergency medicine, cardiology, allergy, ENT, and family medicine. Brims recently finished her dual master's degree in clinical education and nutrition for healthcare professionals.

This blog was provided in partnership with the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

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