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State Allocates Funds to Train Physician Aides


SACRAMENTO — Searching for low-cost ways to expand health services in inner-city and rural areas, the Wilson Administration moved Tuesday to pump more state money into the training of health care professionals who can perform some functions of licensed doctors.

David Werdegar, state health planning and development director, said $1.6 million was being awarded to five California medical colleges for training programs for physician assistants.

He said the new money, nearly half of which will go to Los Angeles-area colleges, will allow the schools to increase the number of physician assistants who graduate by about 25%.

Physician assistants can perform about 80% of the services of a licensed doctor and at much less cost. Their training to diagnose illnesses, order and interpret lab tests, carry out treatment plans, give physical exams and provide preventive health care counseling allows them to perform routine physician duties, freeing overburdened doctors to handle more complex cases.

As health care reform measures put more emphasis on outpatient primary care and less on specialized hospital treatment, Werdegar said, physician assistants will play a greater role in patient treatment. In the future, their presence in a doctor's treatment room may be as readily accepted as that of a hygienist in a dentist's office or a paralegal in a law firm.

"There are only 2,000 physician assistants in the state now and we believe we could easily double that number," Werdegar said. Physician assistants are licensed by the California Medical Board and must work under the supervision of a fully trained doctor.

The additional funding for physician assistant training is a pet project of the state health Director Molly Coye, who said she wanted to see it come to fruition before she leaves office at the end of the month.

"This has been a very personal passion for me," she said. "I trained in family practice originally and I worked closely with both physician assistants and nurse practitioners and, in fact, felt that they trained me as much as many of the doctors."

Coye said she sees the training of more physician assistants as way to alleviate a shortage of primary care physicians, particularly in rural and inner-city areas. She said some of the new funds, for example, will go to Charles R. Drew University, which has placed strong emphasis on training students who will work in South-Central Los Angeles, and to USC, which has placed a number of graduates in the Latino communities of East Los Angeles.

"Even if we give everyone in the country a health insurance card, our biggest problem is that we don't have enough primary care providers," she said.

She said one of the fastest ways to fill the gap is by using physician assistants who can be trained more quickly than licensed doctors--in two years as opposed to five--and at much less cost.

Coye said physician assistants have proved extremely popular because they usually have more time to spend with each patient than fully trained doctors. The average pay of a physician assistant entering the profession after graduation is $42,000, according to UC Davis studies. Doctors' pay ranges much higher, usually in six figures.

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