Family medicine is a medical specialty that provides healthcare for the individual and the family. Unlike internal medicine, which treats adults, or pediatrics, which treats babies and children, family medicine involves working with patients of all ages over the course of the lifespan. This means family practitioners work with both sexes to address issues related to all organ system and every disease entity.
According to a joint policy statement published by the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Physician Assistants, family medicine is rooted in the “historical generalist tradition,” with the physician-led team being multidimensional.
Family medicine is distinguishable from other medical specialties because it focuses on the patient-physician relationship in the context of the family.
Physician Assistants in Family Medicine: Job Duties and Responsibilities
Physician assistants (PAs) receive a broad, generalist education at the master’s level, which prepares them to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive care, making them important members of the family medicine team.
Although PAs work in all areas of medicine and surgery, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFA) reports that the single largest specialty category is family medicine, representing about 25 percent of all PAs.
The AAPA reports that about 54 percent of physician assistants in family medicine work in solo or group physician practices, 23 percent work in community health centers and federally certified rural health facilities, and the remaining work in hospitals, home health agencies, long-term care facilities, correctional systems, and HMOs.
Workforce forecasters are not only predicting a shortage of primary care physicians in the coming years, but they also predict there will not be enough physician assistants to meet patient demand over the next 20 years.
In family medicine, physician assistant jobs involve:
- Diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries
- Making hospital and nursing home rounds
- Managing patients with chronic conditions
- Ordering and interpreting lab tests
- Performing minor surgical procedures
- Performing physical examinations
- Prescribing medications
- Providing home visits
- Providing patient education
Physician assistants enhance care coordination, allowing patients to receive care in the most prompt manner possible.
In larger practices, physician assistants with expertise in a certain area of medicine—HIV/AIDS, wound care, diabetic counseling, etc.—often work with patients with that condition. In smaller practices, physician assistants have their own panel of patients, often managing urgent care and chronic disease patients.
Other large family medicine practices have teams consisting of a primary care physician and two or three physician assistants. In this setting, patients have a primary provider, but get to know all clinicians on the team. This helps with both continuity and efficiency of care.
Education, Training, and Certification Requirements
Becoming a physician assistant involves completing a course of education that includes an undergraduate program in the behavioral or biological sciences, followed by a physician assistant program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
Physician assistant programs are masters-level programs that are an average of 27 months in length, including 12 months of didactic education and 15 months of clinical rotations in a number of medical subspecialties, including family medicine.
Upon completing a physician assistant program, graduates must take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) and achieve a state license.
Post-graduate PA programs provide another opportunity for physician assistant graduates to earn valuable experience in family medicine. These programs, which are typically 12 months in length, provide structure work experiences. The Associate of Postgraduate PA Programs reports about 48 of these programs in the U.S.
Professional Certification Opportunities
The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) allows physician assistants to achieve recognition for their specialty skills and knowledge through its certificate of added qualifications (CAQ) program.
Although the NCCPA does not offer a CAQ in family medicine, physician assistants may pursues a CAQ in one or more of the following in order to demonstrate their advanced skills and experience:
- Psychiatry CAQ
- Pediatrics CAQ
- Nephrology CAQ
- Hospital medicine CAQ
- Emergency medicine CAQ
Candidates must possess a PA-C designation and a valid, unrestricted license to practice as a physician assistant in at least one U.S. jurisdiction. They must also meet the following requirements:
- Possess at least two years of experience
- Possess a Category I specialty CME
- Possess the procedures and patient case experience appropriate for the specialty for which they are applying
- Pass a specialty exam
Resources for Physician Assistants in Family Medicine
Membership and participation in professional associations allows physician assistants to network with like-minded professionals and stay current on the latest happenings in the profession:
- Association of Family Practice Physician Assistants
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- National Association of Community Health Centers
- American Osteopathic Association