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The Health Care Innovations Shaping the Future of Physician Assistant Roles

May 1, 2024

Physician assistants (PAs) are essential contributors to health care innovation (there’s even a textbook on the subject). They lead the pack in adopting new technology and new models for care and education, according to Dipu Patel, a PA and professor at the University of Pittsburgh who serves as the school’s vice chair for innovation. “PAs are poised to lead the way in transforming health care through digital innovation,” Patel said. “This will ensure innovations are clinically sound, patient-centered, and ethically grounded.”

PAs have disrupted the traditional health care model since the profession emerged in the 1960s, taking on responsibilities that were previously the sole domain of physicians. As new technologies emerge, PAs will almost certainly continue to occupy the vanguard in their adoption and implementation. A forward-looking degree program—like the University of Pittsburgh Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies – Hybrid Program (PAS-Hybrid)—can prepare PAs for the challenges and opportunities of AI-assisted care and similar advances. Let’s take a closer look at some ways modern PAs push the boundaries in emerging areas of health care. 

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PAs and AI: Putting Artificial Intelligence into Practice 

Artificial intelligence has transformed every aspect of health care, impacting patients, providers, and entire medical systems. AI “is driving massive improvement and innovation in the health care and life sciences sectors,” Forbes writes. “AI is expediting advances in drug research and discovery. It’s allowing for better and faster diagnoses. And it’s enabling far greater efficiency in business processes.”

The future promises more of the same. The World Economic Forum lists six AI-driven transformations on the horizon: 

  • Predicting heart attack risk up to 10 years into the future
  • Predicting lung cancer risk up to six years in advance
  • Improving drug discovery
  • Easing documentation processes
  • Managing chronic pain
  • Using chatbots for mental health or general patient support

“AI can lead to better care outcomes and improve the productivity and efficiency of care delivery,” according to the McKinsey report “Transforming healthcare with AI: The impact on the workforce and organizations.” “It can also improve the day-to-day life of health care practitioners, letting them spend more time looking after patients and, in so doing, raise staff morale and improve retention. It can even get life-saving treatments to market faster.”

Providers—doctors, nurses, and physician assistants—must understand AI’s current role and transformative potential in health care in this rapidly evolving landscape. Potential implementations include supporting diagnosis, automating administrative tasks, improving coding accuracy, and expanding remote monitoring and telemedicine. AI systems can help PAs track data and medical literature to help them stay up to date. Generative AI can produce more accurate and thorough medical records via note-taking and content summarization. 

PAs and Telehealth: Expanding Care Through Technology  

COVID-19 didn’t create telehealth, but the pandemic increased its use dramatically. Remote health care is especially important in rural areas, and PAs have played a leading role in the rise of the technology. “Patients are busy just like the rest of us,” says Amanda Shelley, PA-C, president of PAs in Virtual Medicine and Telemedicine. “Asking them to take time off work, sit in a lobby, wait for their turn, wait for you to come into the office, and then return to work is really a big ask. People are more likely to put off routine care because of this.”

A virtual visit with a PA costs much less than a trip to the emergency room. When a service costs less, patients are more likely to use it, resulting in better health care outcomes. “Contrary to what many people think, virtual health care, also known as telemedicine or telehealth, is much more than a cheap digital knockoff of in-person care,” Harvard Business Review reports. “When used appropriately, it improves patient health and reduces costs.” 

PAs and the ER: Driving Change in Emergency Medicine

Understaffed ERs lead to longer waits and an increase in frustrated patients leaving before receiving essential care. PAs help fill those gaps, providing many of the same services as physicians, including: 

  • Conducting physical exams
  • Taking a patient’s medical history
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Developing treatment plans
  • Counseling on preventive care
  • Writing prescriptions
  • Referring patients to appropriate specialists
  • Writing admission orders
  • Participating in service quality improvement activities

PAs provide an especially valuable service in an era when fewer physicians are choosing emergency medicine. The decline of emergency department (ED) MDs has been offset by a rise in PAs. “The top three practice areas for PAs in 2022 were surgical subspecialties (19%), family medicine/general practice (17%), and emergency medicine (11%),” according to Clinical Advisor. Having PAs treat patients in EDs also costs less, speeds up patient processing, reduces wait times, and increases patient satisfaction, according to the Society of Emergency Medicine PAs.

Emergency PAs do more than provide essential services. They also actively drive change in emergency medicine by:

  • Facilitating collaboration among emergency care teams
  • Spending more time than physicians with patients
  • Streamlining ED processes
  • Using telehealth to boost positive and efficient patient care outcomes

PAs and Technology: Emerging Roles for Physician Assistants

PA practice extends well beyond clinical settings. Physician assistants can use their skills and medical knowledge for non-clinical roles in emerging and innovative areas like biotechnology, health informatics, and pharmaceuticals. CompHealth, a health care staffing company, suggests nine career options for PAs. The list includes several non-clinical possibilities:

  • Pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical informatics, which may include work in research, clinical trials, regulatory affairs, or communications
  • Public health and advocacy, working on policy development and access to health services
  • Academics, teaching the next generation of PAs

At the Forefront of Health Care Innovation: Benefits of Earning Your Degree at Pitt 

Earning an MS in Physician Assistant Studies through the PAS-Hybrid program at Pitt opens numerous opportunities. Pitt offers the dual benefit of being a leading research institution and home to a world-class health network, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), which provides School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences faculty members opportunities to engage with cutting-edge technology through research and practice.

Next Steps: Applying to the Hybrid PA Program at Pitt

From the unfolding promise of AI to innovations in telehealth, emergency medicine, and non-clinical fields, physician assistants are poised to lead health care in bold new directions. Ready to take the next step toward an exciting career as a PA? Request more information or start your application here.

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