Patients in Maine may soon feel the negative effects of having fewer options for their care, thanks to an increasingly pressing health professional shortage. Fewer health care providers mean longer wait times, more limited choices and plenty of frustration for both patients and providers.

According to the Robert Graham Center, Maine will need 120 additional primary care physicians by the year 2030 to provide patients with the same level of care. This shortage, largely because of Maine’s aging population and rising rates of insured patients, can’t be ignored.

That’s where physician assistants come in.

Physician assistants are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medication and often serve as a patient’s principal health care provider. They practice in every state and in every medical setting and specialty. There are 123,000 physician assistants in the U.S., and close to 900 physician assistants practice in Maine.

Physician assistant students are trained at the master’s degree level under the rigor and standard of the medical model. And, in addition to their classroom education, physician assistant students are required to complete 2,000 hours or more of clinical training before graduating. The background and training of the modern physician assistant student allows physician assistant graduates to be adaptable and flexible in the health care workforce.

Physician assistants value team practice and are committed to working in teams with physicians. Utilizing their medical training and experience, physician assistants are equipped with the necessary skills to be valuable and effective members of the health care workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the profession is projected to increase 37 percent from 2016 to 2026 – that influx of physician assistants can help to fill the gaps in Maine’s health care workforce.

But Maine’s laws, which can place unnecessary restrictions on physician assistants, are holding them back.

Especially in rural communities, current laws and regulations can make it difficult for physician assistants to provide desperately needed care. In Maine, 37 percent of physician assistants work in rural areas – but easing restrictions on physician assistants could encourage even more to do the same. And an influx of providers would help to relieve some of the strain on the many federally designated medically underserved areas and populations in the state.

The need for more providers is evident. According to the Maine Department of Labor, in 2014, the state had more than 100,000 jobs in health care and social assistance – sectors that employ more Mainers than any other industry. But by 2024, the state will need at least 9,000 more. As the state’s population continues to age, the demand for health care workers will only grow – and we have to keep up with it.

If patients in Maine want increased access to high-quality, cost-effective medical care, many things need to change. Modernizing physician assistant practice laws represents a small part of that change, but it could make a huge impact on health care in our state. And others are starting to take note.

Recently, the National Rural Health Association released a policy brief in support of these types of laws and regulations, recognizing that physician assistants can do more for rural areas when they’re able to practice at the top of their education and experience. For example, one of the association’s recommendations is that laws and regulations should allow the details on an individual physician assistant’s “scope of practice” (that is, the services they are permitted to provide) to be decided at the practice level.

Now is the time for change. Simplifying, standardizing and modernizing physician assistant practice authority in Maine will increase the number of physician assistants in the state, and help us to close the gap created by the provider shortage. Importantly, physician assistants can also make it easier for patients to get an appointment, be seen more quickly and decrease needless and costly ER visits. Physician assistants in Maine complete an average of 62 patient visits per week.

Now more than ever, Maine needs physician assistants. They’re filling health care gaps and breaking down occupational barriers, and their ranks are growing faster than ever. Let’s make the most of what physician assistants can offer.

 


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