The Piedmont is feeling the pinch of a national doctor shortage.
More people gaining access to health coverage is putting an overwhelming strain on physicians to keep up with the demand.
In the middle of this crisis, physician assistants find themselves highly sought after at an unprecedented rate.
“Up to 80 percent of what a physician does in a primary care setting a PA can do. They fill a huge niche,” Dr. Linda Sekhon, founding chair for the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program at High Point University, said.
It’s estimated that North Carolina, which has about 2,700 family practice physicians, will need 2,000 more by 2020.
Medical professionals say part of the problem is that physicians are going into specialties and a lot of physicians are practicing in larger cities.
In addition to that, doctors are retiring as medical school slots remain relatively static.
For those reasons, physician assistants are helping to fill a critical gap.
“An M.D. or D.O. trained family practitioner, it’s a seven-year journey and that's after college,” Dr. Lawrence Nycum, Novant Health senior vice-president of medical affairs for the Winston-Salem market, said.
“It’s a two-year journey for a PA, so you can rapidly get more manpower or womanpower into the workforce in a timely fashion,” Nycum added.
Physician Assistant Chase Michaels graduated from Duke University in 2009 and currently works at a Novant Health pediatrics office.
"You have to have a supervising physician at all times, but you still have a lot of autonomy. I see my own patients,” Michaels said.
Although the career track is different than a doctor, physician assistants receive a graduate degree and the programs are often just as competitive as medical school.
“These are very intelligent highly educated health care providers that are filling a niche currently, but I can see their role continuing to expand," Nycum said.
Murphey Houston and Megan Anderson are in the physician assistant program at High Point University.
Given the current market, they are optimistic about their options after graduation.
“More patients will have access to the healthcare system now and there’s going to be a need for more providers specifically PAs can fill that role,” Houston said.
“It's great to know that you're not only going to have a job, but that you also get to change the lives of other people,” Anderson added.
Wake Forest University and Elon University are other schools in the Piedmont with PA programs.