Physician assistants (PAs) have come a long way in Mississippi. Mississippi was the last state in the country to license the PAs, who provide medical care under the supervision of a physician. And now it is the state that boasts the highest per capita income for PAs of any state in the nation.
“In 2006, Mississippi did report the highest salary for PAs who were working at least 32 hours per week,” said Marc Finch, MPAS (Master in Physician Assistant Studies), PA-C (physical assistant-certified), who is immediate past president of the Mississippi Academy of Physician Assistants (MAPA). “That is huge for a state that has been licensed for just a little over five years. Mississippi just passed the law in 2000, and it has continued to grow rapidly each year. PAs help fill a niche that is needed.”
The average pay for PAs in Mississippi was $95,712 while the average in the U.S. was $84,396.
PAs work includes physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses, counseling on preventive healthcare, assisting in surgery and therapeutic services. A PA’s practice can also include education, research and administrative services.
Finch, who has worked as a PA in two other states, said part of the reason PAs are doing well here is that Mississippi has the best laws governing PAs of the states he has worked.
“The practice environment here is very good,” said Finch, who currently works in Petal.
PAs can deliver healthcare at costs lower than physicians. And PAs can play an important role in providing services in rural areas of the state that are underserved by physicians.
Some rural areas that can’t afford a physician can support a PA.
Doctors in the state have welcomed the help from PAs.
“Physicians are for the most part widely accepting of PAs, because physicians know the PA training is similar to the physician’s training,” said Finch, who was the third PA licensed in Mississippi. “PAs receive similar training. It just isn’t as long. And the Medical Licensure Board has been extremely supportive of PAs. In 2003, PAs were granted controlled substance privileges. It did show a lot of confidence in the PAs and their track record. It also strengthened the team approach that PAs take in their job.”
Finch said one of things PAs do best is talk to patients and explain what is going on. PAs talk to patients about their disease state and ways to improve it instead of just taking a pill.
Many members of the public still aren’t familiar with PAs. They ask, “What are you?”
“They think you are a medical assistant, but it is beyond that,” Finch said. “Overall, 95% of the time people who see a PA would not have a problem seeing a PA again. Most people don’t have a problem with accepting PAs. If they want to see a physician, it is best to let them do that. But at times I am the only one there. I work at a family practice clinic, and we don’t do appointments. When the physician and I are both there, things move a whole lot faster. Going along with that, PAs are trained to know their limits. If I have questions about a patient’s care, I will go talk to the doctor. We are not afraid to say, ‘I need to go ask someone who knows more about this.’ It goes back to embracing the whole team approach.”
Amy Ballard, PA-C, Tupelo, current president of MAPA, said there are currently about 100 PAs practicing in this state.
“It has grown over the past two years probably two-fold,” Ballard said. “We are playing a lot of different roles, everything from primary care to cardiothoracic surgery, internal medicine, cardiology and orthopedic surgery. Those are just some of the specialties that state PAs work in.”
She isn’t sure why, but has noticed that most of the state’s PAs work in the southern part of the state.
Before entering a PA school, applicants must have a bachelor’s of science degree from a university. Then the program training takes two and a half years. Currently there are no PA programs in Mississippi, although there are two in Alabama and one in Louisiana.
“Essentially, all of the states have PA training programs except Mississippi,” Ballard said. “That is one of our items of interest. One of the things we are looking at pursuing is trying to get a PA training program in Mississippi considering it is a rural, poor state. It would be more medical personnel to go out and meet the needs of Mississippians.”
Ballard said a lot of people are just becoming aware of what PAs are and what they are capable of doing.
“Once they encounter a PA, most patients are pleased with the level of medical expertise,” Ballard said. “We do practice medicine. We are physician extenders, but we are taught to practice medicine. The general acceptance of PAs is great. PAs lessens the burden on physicians. They give physicians more time in their day. Overall it is a win-win situation.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com.