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Northwestern Medicine Sees Boom in Physician Assistant Profession

Chicago is hub of new programs at Northwestern and Rush to answer health care shortage

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October 5, 2010 | by Marla Paul

CHICAGO --- New medical programs have sprung up in Chicago to train a rapidly growing and increasingly critical field of health professionals -- physician assistants. These professionals, who provide many of the same services as doctors, are poised to fill the shortage of primary care providers. 

The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine launched its first physician assistant (PA) program in June and now has more than 1,000 applicants for the next class of 30 students for 2011. Rush University began its PA program a few weeks after Northwestern. Malcom X College of Chicago also has a PA program.

National Physician Assistants Week is Oct. 6 to 12, recognizing the estimated 68,100 practicing PAs in the United States.

According to projections by the American Academy of Family Physicians, the U.S. will face a shortfall of 40,000 family physicians in 2020, just as the number of older and underserved patients and demand for care is expected to be at its highest. Physician assistants are expected to deliver care to the approximately 32 million new patients with access to health care services.

Physician assistants are health professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. PAs perform a comprehensive range of medical duties, from basic primary care to high-technology specialty procedures. They often act as first or second assistants in major surgery and provide pre- and post-operative care.

In some rural areas where physicians are in short supply, PAs serve as the primary providers of health care, conferring with their supervising physicians and other medical professionals as needed and as required by law. PAs can be found in virtually every medical and surgical specialty.

The PA profession emerged in the mid-1960s to increase the public's access to quality health care. The first PAs were former medical corpsmen who wanted to use their medical skills in civilian life.