As the only medical professional in my immediate family, I receive a lot of phone calls from family members about a wide range of healthcare-related issues. The other day, my mother called with one such question. She wanted to know if it was okay to see a Physician Assistant (PA) instead of her Surgeon for a routine follow-up visit. Responding to this question brought into focus some points that I think are worth sharing.
My first exposure to PAs came during my residency training. I’ll never forget when we were told that PAs had been hired into the Department of Surgery. I immediately became concerned that they would make surgical residents obsolete and, even worse, take away my opportunity to assist the Attending Surgeons in the operating room. However, this was far from the truth. It turned out that the new PAs would only make life better for both residents and patients. Between operations, they helped us complete items from our seemingly never-ending to-do list to keep patient care on track. In the operating room, they made us look good by bringing us up to speed on each Attending Surgeon’s specific preferences, as these sometimes varied significantly between doctors.
After training, I have had the privilege of working with PAs since my very first day as a full-fledged Attending Surgeon. It is in this context that I have truly come to appreciate just how important they are and the many roles they perform. While this list is probably a lot longer than what I am about to outline below, these are a few areas that I have found to be most affected by having a PA in our practice:
- Patient Care
As a Plastic Surgeon who specializes in advanced reconstruction of the breast, many of our operations can last an entire day. This makes it very difficult to tend to sporadic issues or questions that our other patients may have during the day. Our PA, who is usually with us in the operating room, can come and go from the operation and is able to reach out to such patients throughout the day. Responding in a timely fashion often makes it possible for us to evaluate and take care of small issues before they become larger problems.
The Plastic Surgeon is only one part of the cancer care team, which consists of professionals from several different medical specialties. In order for this team to function optimally, it is critical that all of the specialties are communicating and keeping not just the patient, but each other, informed of the evaluations and treatments that are being performed or administered by each group. Once again, busy schedules can make such communication between medical professionals very difficult. Having a strong network of care providers, such as PAs or Nurse Practitioners, can facilitate the transfer of this information between groups and keep everyone on the same page.
Sometimes people are shocked when I tell them that, in addition to being a Surgeon, I am also a human being. So working 70, 80, or sometimes over 100 hours in a week can be difficult. There is nothing more comforting than walking into what I know is going to be a very busy and technically demanding day and seeing that our PA, Maggie, is ready to tackle the day with me.