May 31, 2014

Interviewer: It's one of the hottest careers in medicine right now. It's one of the hottest careers in the country right now. We're going to find out what that is coming up next on The Scope.

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Interviewer: It's one of the best master's degree you can get for jobs. What is it? We're going to find out right now. We're with Jennifer Coombs. She's been a P.A. for 21 years, a physician's assistant. That career is hot, hot, hot right now. Why is that?

Jennifer Coombs: I think we're in a new cost effective world. P.A.s provide care for patients in a very cost effective way. I like to say we're good in good times and good in bad times. If you want to see a physician, there's a shortage of physicians, P.A.s are going to be, I think, increasingly utilized in our world.

Interviewer: How long have physician's assistants been around?

Jennifer Coombs: Nearly half a century. Physician assistants came out of the Vietnam War. There was a physician who saw returning military medics and all that they could do. He had this idea maybe we could train these people that have an incredible amount of experience to help the physician and really do a lot of the work that the physician can do.

Interviewer: It's a master's program. It's a master's degree to become a P.A. if I understand correctly. I was reading a 'Forbes' article and the salaries are pretty decent.

Jennifer Coombs: Salaries are good. Salaries are good out west. Salaries are good across the country. There are certainly more programs opening up. There's a lot of desire to be a P.A. I like to joke with my husband that I can't go to a wedding, I can't go to a funeral without somebody coming up to me and saying hey, I want to be a P.A., or I have a friend who wants to be a P.A.

Interviewer: In that 'Forbes' article median career, in the middle of your career, salaries are around $80,000. Is that true?

Jennifer Coombs: That is true, yes. It's a very good salary right out of school. P.A.s have a fair amount of debt, about half the debt that a medical student will have.

Interviewer: Okay. The question is a lot of people might hear those dollar signs and think this might be the career for me, but it probably takes a certain kind of person that would do well in this career. What is that person?

Jennifer Coombs: You definitely have to be called, I think, to medicine. Medicine is something that is going to require long hours and is going to require someone who really likes people and really has a desire to serve people. We're looking for that in the profession. I think we end up finding that because people who want to be a P.A., I often joke with our applicants, you become ambassador for the profession because your family's going to say why do you not want to be a doctor.

Interviewer: Yeah, sure, why don't you want to take it to the next step.

Jennifer Coombs: Pretty much everybody who's interested in being a P.A. has to be able to answer that question and defend it to their friends and family. They say you're bright enough, you get great grades, you could go to medical school. The person has to be able to say you know what, P.A.s are really happy. They ask P.A.s would you do it again. Most P.A.s say yes I'd do it again. School is rigorous, but you feel like you come out with a great deal of knowledge and you're ready to hit the ground running. You have autonomy out in practice. You work with physicians who respect you. Patients, for the most part, respect you and value your care. It's a really good job.

Interviewer: Yeah. The joke is a lot of physicians tend to be Type A personalities. Would the same thing be true for P.A.s, or is it a little bit more of a mellow crowd?

Jennifer Coombs: Definitely the P.A. crowd is usually a very personable group of people.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Jennifer Coombs: Yeah. Definitely high on people skills.

Interviewer: If somebody was interested in a career in becoming a physician's assistant, besides school and applying for schools, what are some of the things that they should do, say, somebody who is in high school? Or, there are a lot of P.A.s that become P.A.s in their 30s or 40s, aren't there? How could you prepare, I guess, is the ultimate question.

Jennifer Coombs: I think the most important thing to prepare for P.A. school is to get some health care experience. I know even high schools have pre-professional training and they have certified nursing assistant training that you can get. You can go to the community college and take courses to become a medical assistant. Get in some kind of training right away so that you can get some medical experience. You've got to know that you're going to want to work with people that are sick.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Jennifer Coombs: That is ultimately what you're going to be doing. That means there are going to be all kinds of people that you're going to work with. There are people that aren't going to be in good moods. It's tough work itself, so you have to get that early experience to know that's what you want to do.

Interviewer: What's the day to day of a P.A.?

Jennifer Coombs: P.A.s work in a variety of settings. You might be in a family practice office. In the office you're going to get there early so you can look over your charts and usually do a huddle with the medical assistants in your clinic. You look at your schedule. Then, you start seeing patients, and your day never reflects the schedule.

Interviewer: That's funny.

Jennifer Coombs: And, you have to be able to roll with the punches. Usually you have to do several things at once. I know a lot of the P.A.s that I see out in clinic, they're on the phone fielding a phone call, charting, and oftentimes talking to their supervising physician or one of the medical assistants. They're doing, like, three things at once.

Interviewer: My perception was that physician's assistants just were in family practice, but there are also specialty opportunities for physician's assistants?

Jennifer Coombs: They're intensivists at the hospital. They're in nursing homes. They're in neurology, urology. You can find P.A.s in every specialty. That's the other thing, too, is there are shortages of physicians in all specialties. If you have a child that has epilepsy and you want to get in to see a pediatric neurologist, it's nearly impossible. There are P.A.s working in those areas, and you might end up seeing a P.A. That gives you access. It gives you access to this Tier One system that we have.

Interviewer: Yeah, and it will give you access to a professional that could very possibly answer the question you had anyway it sounds like.

Jennifer Coombs: Absolutely, and coordinate your care, refer you on.

Interviewer: Very nice. Any final thoughts on somebody considering a career as a P.A.?

Jennifer Coombs: There are 187 programs right now that are accredited. I think you have to be able to apply to several programs in order to get in, and then the requirements are different at different programs. You have to be a good consumer of the school and what that school has to offer. At the University of Utah we have one of the oldest programs in the country. We have a very high quality program. Right now we're the only program in the state of Utah.

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