HISTORY OF THE PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT (PA) PROFESSION

Following World War II, as specialization in medical practice increased, there was a drastic decline in primary care providers which created a gap in the clinical care of patients nationwide. In 1961, the American Medical Association (AMA) proposed the further training of former military corpsman as “assistants to physicians” because they independently delivered medical care on the battlefield and had expert experience in stabilizing trauma and surgical conditions. In response to the lack of available care, Dr. Eugene Stead of Duke University established a 2-year program for former military corpsman to utilize their extensive medical knowledge from saving lives on the battle field and train as “physician assistant” to cover the shortage of primary care physicians. In 1965, the first ever PA program was inaugurated by 4 ex-military corpsmen at Duke University with increasing classes of corpsman in subsequent years.  The curriculum at Duke PA Program was constructed as undergraduate medical education which trained the corpsman to provide medical care to rural and under-served populations. Physician Assistant History Society preserves the history of the birth and growth of the PA profession through a collection of manuscripts, papers, oral histories, visual artifacts, dissertations etc. The first black physician assistant, Prentiss Harrison, was also a graduate from Duke University’s PA program and a famous physician assistant for his pioneering efforts. He helped in the advancement of the PA career and taught other African American physicians on the PA concept.

Prentiss Harrison is the first African-American graduate of the Duke Physician Assistant Program, and the first African-American physician assistant in the nation.

Since the 1960s, the educational curriculum of the programs and scope of practice of physician assistants have certainly advanced, however, similar to the inaugural PA students with extensive medical experience as medics, the programs today also require prospective students to have extensive clinical knowledge and prior healthcare experience through direct patient care jobs. Thankfully today, through clinical medical assistant online courses and available certifications in phlebotomy, ER technician, respiratory therapist etc., (to name a few), pre-PA students have a wide range of opportunities that will provide them with necessary medical experience and knowledge they need prior to starting PA school.

By reviewing the physician assistant history, we can recognize that the core values of the PA profession today are the same as the values which Dr. Eugene Stead founded the inaugural class at Duke University in 1965. The PA profession functions collaboratively with the physician to create a well-balanced healthcare team committed to increasing availability and accessibility of quality patient care in an atmosphere which encourages patient-centered care with trust and compassionate. The most recent Competencies of the Physician Assistant Profession was outlined by NCCPA and revised in 2012. It emphasizes importance of medical knowledge, interpersonal & communication skills, patient care, professionalism, patient-based learning and improvement, and system-based practice.

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