October 6-12 marked National Physician Assistant Week to recognize physician assistants (PAs) around the nation and raise awareness of the important role of the physician assistant.
William Beaumont Army Medical Center employs several PAs and is a phase II site for the Interservice Physician Assistant Program (IPAP) and hosts anywhere from eight to 12 students at a time during clinical rotations. During the 13-month phase II training, the students rotate through a variety of clinics to gain knowledge and experience. Clinics include: surgery, dermatology, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics, behavioral health, internal medicine, otolaryngology (ENT/allergy), pediatrics, ophthalmology, emergency medicine and family practice.
"We're here to support the warfighter," said Capt. Timothy Pekari, IPAP clinical coordinator at WBAMC. "That's the number one mission. (PAs) are the first person (Soldiers) see for medical care at every battalion or brigade."
In 1965, a changing social climate and shortage of doctors led to the first PA program at Duke University with the Army beginning its program in 1971, following the university's training model.
"The best part about being a PA is you can be a jack of all trades," said Pekari, a Titusville, Florida, native. "If today I work in orthopedics, tomorrow I can apply for a job in emergency medicine or general surgery."
In the Army, PAs serve under the Army Medical Department's Medical Specialist Corps and provide sustained health services from tactical to strategic levels, maintaining and increasing the readiness of Soldiers in addition to caring for their families and retirees. While some Army PAs graduate into family medicine and are known as primary care managers, their scope of practice varies with opportunities to practice emergency medicine, orthopedic surgery and general surgery, with further education.
The role of PAs at the brigade level is unique to the profession since PAs serve as the senior medical subject-matter experts while directly affecting the readiness of the unit. In addition to medical care, PAs in deployable units are also tasked with the training and education of combat medics in a unit.
"We're kind of the quiet professionals, so a lot of times we don't showcase (the important role PAs play in Army units)," said Pekari. "We get people to where they need to go."
Another unique aspect of the Army PAs is their diversified enrollment criteria, which invites service members from any Military Occupational Specialty with a few college credits to apply. The program is also open to commissioned and warrant officers interested in the practice as well as current PA-certified candidates outside the military.
"(Patients) need to appreciate those who are behind the scenes doing all the work, and a lot of times (for active-duty Soldiers) that's the PA," said Pekari, explaining the importance of National PA Week. "(PAs) are keeping Soldiers on the battlefield and there's no way you can do that with a nurse or with a doctor because there's just not enough of them. PAs are willing to get their hands dirty for the mission."