“My friend invited me to shadow him as he made patient rounds working as a physician assistant,” says Dahl, who worked as a certified nursing assistant at the same hospital. “Seeing how he connected with patients and their families was so rewarding. By the end of the day, I was hooked. I wanted to be a physician assistant.”
A highly competitive program
MD Anderson’s Oncology Physician Assistant Fellowship program is highly competitive, says Maura Polansky, who founded the program in 2001.
Only two fellows are accepted each year from a pool of applicants from all over the country.
“Our PAs are far ahead of others just entering the field,” says Polansky, Physician Assistant Education program director. “That one, intense year of training is the equivalent of several years of work experience.”
The day to day of a PA
A day in the life of a PA is much like a day in the life of a physician. PAs take medical histories, examine patients, order and interpret tests, diagnose medical problems, develop treatment plans, prescribe medications, and educate patients and families about illnesses and treatments.
Many assist in surgical procedures, perform outpatient procedures such as lumbar punctures and bone marrow biopsies, and participate in clinical research studies.
Supervised by physicians, PAs are sometimes called mid-level providers — a category that also includes nurse practitioners and certified nurse anesthetists.
“PAs aren’t just assistants to physicians,” notes Polansky. “The physicians who work with PAs count on them to provide patients with the same level of care a physician would provide, and to get the physician involved when needed.”
A recent study commissioned by the American Academy of Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of 4,000 medical oncologists by 2020. This translates to 10 million visits by cancer patients that can’t be handled due to physician shortage.
“As our population ages and life expectancy increases, cancer cases will rise,” Polansky says. “Oncology PAs will be in high demand.”
This year, U.S. News and World Report listed physician assistant as No. 13 on its “100 Best Jobs” list, citing strong demand and low unemployment.
Beyond job security, the profession offers personal fulfillment, Polansky says.
“In the course of cancer treatment, you develop valuable relationships with patients and their families. Every patient is special, and the PA’s job is to make each day of their cancer journey a little better.”