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Doctor Shortage: Is It OK to go With a Physician Assistant?

Doctor Shortage: Is It OK to go With a Physician Assistant?

(Copyright DPC)

By    |   Friday, 30 September 2016 04:47 PM

With millions of newly insured patients entering the healthcare system as a result of Obamacare, the demand for family practice doctors has increased astronomically.

There aren’t nearly enough general practitioner MDs to go around. By 2025, there will be a national shortage of up to 31,100 family physicians and internists, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

To handle the patient overflow, MDs increasingly rely on physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). At many clinics, patients rarely see their primary-care physician, and many of them aren’t happy about it.

About 72 percent of patients would rather see an MD than a PA, according to a recent national survey.

But should you be worried about seeing an MD instead of a PA or NP?

Not necessarily, experts say. But it depends on why you’re seeing a healthcare professional.

Most PAs or NPs are perfectly able to treat minor conditions. But more serious disorders require the attention of an MD.

“The vast majority of medicine is routine,” says Tom Ahern, a certified PA with nearly 40 years of experience. “I would say that 99 percent of the time it’s OK to see the PA.”

Although both PAs and NPs can diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medications, and order/interpret tests, there are some differences.

For example, only PAs are allowed to assist during surgery. NPs specialize in disease prevention and health management of chronic but stable conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.

The role of PAs or NPs varies from practice to practice, and depends on their level of experience.

At many family practices, PAs and NPs handle routine problems such as coughs, colds, rashes, sore throats, cuts, sprains, and urinary tract infections.

They also ensure that patients are checked for blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and blood sugar, and that their vaccinations are up to date.

Research shows that the widespread use of PAs and NPs is associated with shorter waits for appointments in clinics and quicker treatment in hospital emergency rooms.

According to one study, older patients received higher quality care for dementia, falls, and urinary incontinence when they were managed by an NP and an MD than by an MD alone.

Despite these benefits, there are situations that demand the attention of an MD.

“Anybody that has a potentially life-threatening illness really needs to be seen and managed by a physician,” Ahern tells Newsmax Health.

“This is particularly true in cancer care, in severe unstable diabetics, and in severe unstable cardiac and pulmonary patients.”

Others who should see an MD include the estimated 5-10 percent of patients who arrive in clinics and emergency rooms with conditions that aren’t easily identifiable.

Because MDs have rigorous continuing education requirements, they may be more likely to correctly identify conditions that seemingly defy diagnosis.

If your primary-care MD is usually missing in action, and you want to see someone with an equivalent level of training and experience, consider a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).

Nationwide, there are about 87,000 DOs and 60 percent of them work in primary care.

Like MDs, DOs receive training in a four-year medical school. After graduation, they must complete a residency program in a specialty ranging from family medicine, gastroenterology, dermatology, or neurosurgery.

In every state, a DO can do everything an MD does. This includes diagnosing and treating conditions, prescribing medication, ordering tests, and (if qualified) performing surgery.

In addition, DOs are trained to use their hands to examine a patient’s musculoskeletal system and treat conditions by manipulating joints and muscles.
 

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With doctor shortages in many regions of the U.S., MDs are increasingly relying on physician assistants and nurse practitioners to handle some of their patient loads. But should you be worried about seeing someone other than an MD to manage your health? Here's what you need to know.
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