PAth to Better PAtient Care
As the understanding of genetics permeates nearly every medical specialty, the need for clinical genetics services for patients is booming – often faster
than the current genetics clinics can handle. In addition, more clinical geneticists are retiring than are being trained, leading to a critical shortage
of providers, long wait times for patients and an overburdened workforce.
In order to alleviate this shortage of genetics providers, GGC and other genetics organizations have enlisted the help of advanced practice providers such
as Physician Assistants (PAs).
GGC now has two PAs on our faculty, Wesley Patterson, MSPA, PA-C, and Laura Gardner, MSPAS, PA-C.
PAs – I’ve heard of those, but what exactly do they do?
The PA profession was established at Duke University in 1967 with the purpose of increasing patient access to care while helping alleviate the nationwide shortage of physicians.
PAs work in every medical specialty and setting. They obtain medical histories, perform physical exams, diagnosis illness, develop and manage treatment
plans, prescribe medications, order and interpret labs and imaging, perform procedures, assist in surgery, perform research, and often serve as the
patient’s primary care provider (PCP). PAs work in collaboration with physicians, genetic counselors, dietitians, and other members of the healthcare
team as well as autonomously.
There are currently over 131,000 certified PAs practicing in every state, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
What does PA training involve?
PAs are medical providers trained in the medical model as generalists. Most PA programs are 27 months in length with 15 months of didactic lecture and
12 months of clinical rotations totaling over 2000 clinical hours. The didactic time includes courses in clinical medicine, clinical skills, pharmacology,
pathophysiology, behavioral medicine, anatomy/physiology, interprofessionalism, problem-based learning, evidence-based learning, and medical ethics.
The clinical rotations include rotations in primary care, internal medicine, pediatrics, women’s health/OBGYN, emergency medicine, surgery, orthopedics,
and psychiatry. Upon completion of an accredited PA program, PAs graduate with a master’s degree but few programs offer combined degrees such as PA
and PharmD or PA and Master of Public Health. A doctorate is not required to practice medicine but there are doctorate programs available.
PAs are required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) in order to obtain a license. To maintain their certification, PAs must
complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and take the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE) every 10 years.
Post-graduate PA residency and fellowship programs exist but are not required to practice. An additional certificate known as a Certificate of Added
Qualification (CAQ) is available for some specialties.
How are PAs involved in genetics?
In genetics, PAs can obtain medical and family histories, perform physical exams, order genetic testing, interpret genetic testing results, follow-up with
patients and families regarding these results, and work collaboratively with geneticists, genetic counselors, and dieticians as needed.
Patterson was GGC’s first PA, joining the clinical team in 2018. He worked in GGC’s Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory from 2010-12, but felt the calling
into clinical medicine and went back to school to earn his PA Masters degree from Jefferson College of Health Sciences.
“Genetics is such a unique and gratifying field,” said Patterson. “Being able to work with and advocate for your patients is truly rewarding. One of my
favorite parts of the field of genetics is that it is continuously changing.”
Patterson helped to found the Society of PAs in Genetics and Genomics (SPAGG) to promote the field of genetics
and serve as a resource for PAs in this specialty. He also serves as its treasurer and webmaster. “There are many new technologies available and more
being created to help diagnose and treat our patients. This is a unique and amazing time to be in genetics.”
Gardner joined GGC’s Greenville office in 2019 as a clinical PA and trainee in GGC’s Metabolic Advanced Practice Provider Fellowship Program. She is a
graduate of the PA program at Elon University.
“I am thrilled to have been selected to be a part of such a unique and exciting field," said Gardner. “Getting to work in the field of genetics, specifically
with patients with such rare disorders, is a true honor.” Gardner notes that she is “looking forward to the future of this field, the future of rare
diseases, and the future of PAs in genetics.”