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Australia’s first Physician Assistant graduates hold promise to better health care access

Today has been a landmark day in Australian health, particularly for rural and regional areas, with the country’s first graduation of a cohort of bachelor degree trained physician assistants from James Cook University.

Croakey has published a number of reports – see this one and the links below – on the benefits of physician assistants, and the barriers that have been put up in the past to their emergence in Australia.

As this interview on Radio National Breakfast explained today, physicians assistants are medical professionals who work with and under doctors, and they could be the key to making Australia’s health system more efficient and affordable.

In the broadcast, Richard Murray, Dean of Medicine and Dentistry at James Cook says the US has more physician assistants than Australia has doctors, and says trials here have shown great promise.

Stephen Duckett, Director of the Health Program at Grattan Institute, told the graduation ceremony today that physician assistants are a proven way to expand access to care, but the initiative has to go beyond Queensland.

Below are extracts from his speech (read the full speech here) or you can read his article from The Conversation.

The first Physician Assistant graduates number only four; all are mature age students who came to the program with diverse health backgrounds, the university said.

Physician assistants practice medicine under the direct supervision of a doctor. Their role is agreed with the supervising doctor, and can develop over time along with trust, experience and training. They have been shown to provide high quality care. This means that GPs can delegate any kind of care to physician assistants.

Physician assistants are an established part of the health care team in several countries, but implementation in Australia is hampered by multiple veto points between an idea and its implementation.

To be fully effective, introduction of physician assistants to rural and remote

Australia needs coordinated action by the Commonwealth and state governments.

In what I think is a good move, Queensland  this year has ‘gone it alone’ and changed its rules to allow physician assistants to prescribe, refer to medical specialists or order diagnostic tests within the  Queensland public health system.

Similarly, this University has gone it alone in introducing a Bachelor’s degree program for physician assistants.

But the full potential of these changes will only be reached if the Commonwealth recognises physician assistant prescriptions, tests and referrals under the Pharmaceutical Benefits (PBS) and Medicare Benefits Schemes (MBS).

Without Commonwealth recognition under the PBS, patients outside hospitals have to pay more for medication prescribed by a physician assistant.

The graduation today shows that physician assistants are now clearly part of the fabric of the health system in Australia. It is about time that the Commonwealth and states caught up with changes in practice, and changes in the health team, and removed barriers to using physician assistants to their full potential, for the benefits of patients and communities.

Another way in which we need to think and act differently is using pharmacists’ skills better. In a report Grattan Institute issued last year, we argued that a good way to address the access problem in rural Australia was to use pharmacists’ skills better including immunising.

I’m pleased to say the Queensland government has picked up on that suggestion. We went further though and proposed that with the agreement of GPs and patients, pharmacists should be able to provide repeat prescriptions to people with simple, stable conditions. They should also be able to provide vaccinations and to work with GPs to help patients manage chronic conditions. Using pharmacists in this way frees up scarce doctor time to allow them to treat more complex conditions.

Read more from Croakey’s archives about the benefits and barriers to the role:

• Health Workforce Australia report highlights the demand for PAs

• Physician assistants win support of rural and remote doctors

• Professor Peter Brooks on why Australia needs PAs 

Image (top, left)  sourced from an info video produced by the American Academy of Physician Assistants https://www.aapa.org/

Comments 2

  1. Deb O'Kane says:

    As President of ASPA the representative body for PA’s in Australia, I would like to pass on my congratulations to the JCU graduates. It is an exciting time in Queensland with QH already having employed two PAs and Townsville ED advertising to employ more in the New Year. I would like to also take this opportunity to remind employers that there already has been two cohorts of Masters of Physician Assistant graduates from University of Queensland ready to assist interested doctors. Thank you to Croaky for your coverage of our journey.

  2. Accountant says:

    As an educated layman in the medical area, I see this as a very positive step. A corollary is clearly better informed patients, who can at least explain their symptoms with reasonable clarity, and understand what their treating professional is telling them. Be able to ask intelligent questions, and know when to seek further help if their situation is not improving as expected. We all need to recognize that it is our body and we need to understand, at least at a sound basic level, how it works. Broadening the scope of medical treatment also needs a broadening of patient understanding in my view.

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2017 conferences