What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant explains the differences and similarities between a PA and an MD.

When you visit your doctor’s office, you might be as likely to be seen by a physician assistant (previously known as a physician assistant). They’re both qualified, experienced healthcare professionals. There are two main differences: while doctors usually compete four years of medical school, then an internship and residency, PAs begin practicing after two to three years of post-graduate study. Also, doctors are legally allowed to practice independently, while PAs must work under a physician’s supervision.

Physician assistants’ training is compact and more on-the-job, enabling them to be more versatile as opposed to specializing in one field. PAs and doctors learn the same fundamentals in terms of evaluating, diagnosing and treating patients. A physician assistant doesn’t need formal training in specialties such as pediatrics, dermatology or internal medicine to work in that field.

Autumn Groscost is a physician assistant with St. Clair Medical Group Plastic Surgery. She’s been a PA since 2011 after earning a Master’s degree from Chatham University. She’s new to St. Clair Health, but plastic surgery has always been her passion.

“During my clinical year,” she says, “I had the opportunity to complete a six-week rotation with Dr. Kenneth Shestak, who I credit for not only my plastic surgery training but also my ability to be a competent care provider. I spent ten great years with UPMC plastic surgery learning every facet of the field—reconstruction, cosmetic, body contouring, wound healing, hand surgery, burn surgery and non-surgical rejuvenation.

“When I needed a change of pace, I got a call from long-time friend Dr. Ed Ruane at St. Clair Health. Dr. Ruane specializes in reconstructive surgery for women who’ve undergone breast cancer treatment- in addition to various other cosmetic procedures. I’m thrilled to be a member of the St. Clair team.”

A dynamic duo.

Each state regulates the PA’s scope of practice differently, but all PAs must work under a supervising MD. “However, we’re still able to autonomously evaluate, diagnose and treat patients, prescribe and manage medications and perform some procedures,” says Autumn. “The supervising physician doesn’t need to hover over your shoulder, but must be be available for consultation and to sign off on the care.  We’re a team…I like to say we’re a dynamic duo.”

While PA’s make less in terms of salary than doctors, PAs enjoy a more flexible schedule and aren’t required to carry their own malpractice insurance.. These are trade-offs that make this profession more appealing to those planning families—including Autumn, a mother of two young boys.

Working hand-in hand with doctors.

The relationship between PA and supervising physician is crucial, as it strikes a balance and allows the PA to work at the top of their licensure, cultivating mutual respect for patient management and helping minimize burnout for both PAs and doctors.

Autumn says, “I’ve been fortunate to have had PA—physician relationships that helped me grow not only medically but personally. In my new position here with St. Clair, I’m excited to continue to pursue my interests in reconstructive plastic surgery, as well as in cosmetics. In addition to coordinating complex care for breast cancer patients considering reconstruction, I’m a certified injector for non-surgical rejuvenation, such as Botox and fillers. While Dr. Ruane and I work together in the operating room and clinics, I also have the autonomy to develop a cosmetic injectable clinic here at St. Clair.

“I’m delighted to be able to share my experience and collaborate with Dr. Ruane in this next chapter of my career. I’m looking forward to what the future holds here at St. Clair.”

Building relationships with patients.

“I see women who’ve just gotten the worst news of their lives—a breast cancer diagnosis—but with reconstruction options we can allow them to feel whole,” says Autumn.  My most important job is to listen to patients. After that comes managing their expectations. I spend as much time as needed to make sure they fully understand their surgical procedures or in-office treatments. Many of the procedures we offer here are not ‘one-and-done’ operations. We see patients very frequently—in some instances once a week for three months, which lets me really get to know them. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Advice for those who follow.

While plastic surgery satisfies Autumn’s creative side, she’s also passionate about teaching and educating future PAs. She’s spent a significant portion of her career mentoring students from PA programs across the country and her peers as they advance toward leadership roles.

Autumn would encourage anyone interested in a healthcare career to consider the physician assistant path, saying, “I feel my career choice has given me the perfect vantage point. We’re the extenders, the coordinators, the collaborators who work closely in all aspects of healthcare. Physician assistants are flexible, versatile and indispensable members of a healthcare team.”