Ask a Vail Sports Doc: What is a physician assistant? And what do they do? |

Ask a Vail Sports Doc: What is a physician assistant? And what do they do?

Gretchen Meador
Ask a Vail Sports Doc

Every year, from Oct. 6 to 12, we celebrate National PA Week, which recognizes the physician assistant profession and its contribution to health care. The profession first began in 1965 and has since flourished, growing every year since.

Physician assistants are medical professionals trained in general medicine with the option for working and specializing in a specific field.

Often, people have a misunderstanding about what exactly we do. A common question we receive is: "So are you training to be a doctor one day?" The answer is no.

Physician assistants are generally master level trained medical professionals with board certification. Most have a bachelor's in a general science, although most other undergrad degrees are acceptable as long as they have the appropriate pre-requisites to be accepted to a physician assistant program.

Largely, physician assistant programs are two-and-a-half years long and include both classroom learning as well as clinical rotations in seven standard specialties. Additionally, elective rotations are available for students who are interested in different sub-specialties. Orthopedic surgery is one of these sub-specialties.

Here in the Vail Valley, orthopedic PAs are extremely important. We are often seen as the "right hand" to the orthopedic surgeon. Patients in the office, emergency department and operating room will most likely come into contact with a PA.

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In an orthopedic office, you may initially see a physician assistant. They will usually obtain a history of your injury or issue, perform a focused physical exam, order X-ray imaging and discuss a possible diagnosis.

Some patients may be hesitant to see a PA in the office. What most patients should understand is that we as PAs can either treat the diagnosis on our own, or get the ball rolling when it comes to ordering an MRI or scheduling any possible surgical intervention.

Then, the orthopedic physician will usually take over, see the patient themselves and continue along the already set path that the PA has started or alter it accordingly.

When surgery becomes the plan, patients will often meet with the PA for a pre-operative appointment. During this appointment, surgery is described, a history and abbreviated physical exam are performed, and all questions are answered.

In the emergency department, patients may come in contact with an orthopedic PA when surgery is advised. Often, you will meet and discuss surgery with the physician assistant before you are introduced to the orthopedic surgeon. PAs will usually discuss what to expect the next few days following surgery. They will go over all the details of the surgery, what rehab will look like and what to anticipate in the recovery.

Medical history will be reviewed and a focused physical exam is performed. In the operating room, PAs assist in surgery. This is one of the main ways a physician assistant can help the surgeon. They are helping hold retractors, making sure the surgeon is able to perform the surgery to the best of their ability by giving good visualization of the surgical site, helping close surgical wounds, and dressing the wound after surgery is finished.

All in all, physician assistants are extremely helpful within not only the orthopedic world but health care in general.

As a physician assistant myself, I am extremely proud to be a part of the profession. Being a part of the health care team and aiding in the health and recovery of patients makes the hard work and long hours worth it.

Gretchen Meador is a physician assistant with Dr. Richard Cunningham, of Vail-Summit Orthopaedics. For more information, visit