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When It’s OK To See A Nurse Practitioner, Physician Assistant — And When It’s Not

(Alex E. Proimos/Flickr)

(Alex E. Proimos/Flickr)

By Dr. David Scales

Let’s say you hurt your knee doing your best Tom Brady impression playing flag football.

It hurts like the dickens and you’re not sure if you tore something or just have a really bad case of tendonitis. You go to your local urgent care clinic, or doctor’s office, and you’re seen by a physician assistant  (PA), who examines you, says everything is structurally intact, and you should use ice, elevate your leg and take some ibuprofen for the pain.

What the PA said makes sense, but shouldn’t you see — you know — the doctor?

Well, maybe not. While it seems to make sense to always ask for an expert, there can be some downsides. It can take months to get an appointment with a doctor, or cost more to see them versus a PA or nurse practitioner (NP). Also, with the holidays approaching, it’s prime season for senior physicians to be away, with the rest of the health care team pitching in. So when is it fine to see someone besides the doctor for your medical care? And when should you avoid it?

Well, who else might you see at a medical clinic? In addition to a doctor, you could see a PA or NP. If you haven’t seen one yet, you will. Medicine is increasingly becoming a team sport, requiring well-synchronized “pit crews rather than isolated physicians. In Massachusetts, for instance, there are already close to 8,000 NPs and over 2,000 PAs and those numbers are rising to fill a growing shortage in primary care. A 2013 study estimates that Massachusetts will need 725 more primary care providers by 2030.

I asked a few NPs and PAs — each with at least five years of clinical experience, and some with more than 30 — what they think patients should know about all this. They agreed that it’s best to focus on experience rather than the degree behind the name. An NP with three decades of experience may be more knowledgeable than an MD who just finished their residency — and I say that as someone who is just about to finish residency.

One of those NPs with over 30 years experience is Lynne Crawford, a primary care NP at Cambridge Health Alliance. She phrased it this way: “If you see someone and you’re uncomfortable with the encounter, it might be your rapport with them rather than the degree behind their name.” Continue reading