Physician assistants in psychiatry: Helping to meet America’s mental health needs

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The NCCPA has also recognized the importance of increasing PA knowledge and integration in mental health care by establishing a PArtners in Mental Health Steering Committee, composed of leaders from the largest PA organizations, including the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, the Physician Assistant Education Association, the Physician Assistant Foundation, and other PA and interprofessional members. The NCCPA’s PArtners in Mental Health Initiative: Stakeholders Report 2018 outlines an ongoing strategy to increase PA engagement in and awareness of mental health among the PA community and future providers via outreach to member organizations, state societies, PA programs, and those at the state and national level who legislate and reimburse PA services for mental health care.15 The Steering Committee’s recommendations include:

  • enhancing PA educational approaches in mental health
  • strengthening the PA practice environment to address mental health needs and foster integration
  • promoting national campaigns to raise the profile of PAs addressing mental health across disciplines
  • creating an organizational structure that incorporates current participants, offers backbone support to this movement, and plans for communication and financing.16

The role of PA educators

In the end, PA leaders and educators will play a substantial role in influencing future PAs to seek a career in psychiatry. Currently, psychiatry education varies among PA programs. Some offer robust didactic and clinical education and training, while other programs are limited in the number of hours of psychiatric didactic education, and may offer psychiatry clinical opportunities only in the context of a primary care setting, rather than in a dedicated psychiatric setting. Additionally, the mission of training PAs for generalist, primary care practice may limit many PAs from considering psychiatry because they do not necessarily view psychiatry as closely aligning with primary care generalist practice the way cardiology, pulmonology, gastroenterology, or other internal medicine specialties do.

In terms of PA postgraduate education, many PAs have completed residencies in surgical specialties or emergency medicine. Coincidentally, surgery and emergency medicine residencies are the most prolific of the postgraduate residency programs, adding a significant number of well-trained PAs to these specialties. The NCCPA also offers the CAQ for Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, Orthopedic Surgery, and Emergency Medicine, which may attract PAs into these specialties, with or without completing a residency.

Because the NCCPA also offers the CAQ in Psychiatry, it would be reasonable and attractive for PAs who complete a psychiatry residency to obtain this certification. In fact, the PA psychiatry residency at our own institution trains our residents to be fully prepared and board-eligible to take the CAQ in Psychiatry upon completing residency. To date, every PA residency graduate who has completed our program and taken the CAQ in Psychiatry exam has passed and been awarded the CAQ in Psychiatry. They have proven themselves to the program and the NCCPA, and have impressed their employers with their clinical abilities and medical knowledge.

For psychiatrists, the addition of a well-trained or willing-to-be-trained PA to the practice can provide an economic advantage and strong team partnership that ensures optimal care for patients in this time of shortage of skilled mental health clinicians. The need is clear and will continue. Physician assistant educators must provide adequate didactic and clinical training in psychiatry to PA students, and support students interested in pursuing a career path in this specialty. Physician assistant organizations must meet the challenge of increasing the number of PAs in psychiatry, and encourage the establishment of additional post-graduate residency programs in psychiatry for PAs. Lastly, more PAs need to be made aware that psychiatry is an in-demand specialty that offers broad autonomy and rewarding clinical work.

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