Program Profile

Addressing the Shortage of Physician Assistants in Medicine Clerkship Sites

Addressing the shortage of clerkship sites, the VA Boston Healthcare System developed a physician assistant training program in a postacute health care setting.

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The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 37% job growth for physician assistants (PAs) from 2016 to 2026, much greater than the average for all other occupations as well as for other medical professions.1 This growth has been accompanied by increased enrollment in medical (doctor of medicine [MD], doctor of osteopathic medicine) and nurse practitioner (NP) schools.2 Clinical teaching sites serve a crucial function in the training of all clinical disciplines. These sites provide hands-on and experiential learning in medical settings, necessary components for learners practicing to become clinicians. Significant PA program expansion has led to increased demand for clinical training, creating competition for sites and a shortage of willing and well-trained preceptors.3

This challenge has been recognized by PA program directors. In the Joint Report of the 2013 Multi-Discipline Clerkship/Clinical Training Site Survey, PA program directors expressed concern about the adequacy of clinical opportunities for students, increased difficulty developing new core sites, and preserving existing core sites. In addition, they noted that a shortage of clinical sites was one of the greatest barriers to the PA programs’ sustained growth and success.4

Program directors also indicated difficulty securing clinical training sites in internal medicine (IM) and high rates of attrition of medicine clinical preceptors for their students.5 The reasons are multifold: increasing clinical demands, time, teaching competence, lack of experience, academic affiliation, lack of reimbursement, or compensation. Moreover, there is a declining number of PAs who work in primary care compared with specialty and subspecialty care, limiting the availability of clinical training preceptors in medicine and primary care.6-8 According to the American Academy of PAs (AAPA) census and salary survey data, the percentage of PAs working in the primary care specialties (ie, family medicine, IM, and general pediatrics) has decreased from > 47% in 1995 to 24% in 2017.9 As such, there is a need to broaden the educational landscape to provide more high-quality training sites in IM.

The postacute health care setting may address this training need. It offers a unique clinical opportunity to expose learners to a broad range of disease complexity and clinical acuity, as the percentage of patients discharged from hospitals to postacute care (PAC) has increased and care shifts from the hospital to the PAC setting.10,11 The longer PAC length of stay also enables learners to follow patients longitudinally over several weeks and experience interprofessional team-based care. In addition, the PAC setting offers learners the ability to acquire the necessary skills for smooth and effective transitions of care. This setting has been extensively used for trainees of nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT), speech-language pathology, psychology, and social work (SW), but few programs have used the PAC setting as clerkship sites for IM rotations for PA students. To address this need for IM sites, the VA Boston Healthcare System (VABHS), in conjunction with the Boston University School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program, developed a novel medicine clinical clerkship site for physician assistants in the PAC unit of the community living center (CLC) at VABHS. This report describes the program structure, curriculum, and participant evaluation results.


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