Physician Assistants (PAs) are frequently part of the oncology care team, and perform a number of duties under the direction of a supervising physician in cancer diagnosis and treatment. PAs get involved in cancer screening, physical exams, diagnosis, order and analyze tests, counsel patients on preventative care, write medical prescriptions and chemotherapy orders, monitor cancer patients during treatment, treat cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, assist in surgery, treatment plans, and participate in oncology-related clinical trials. Physician assistants work in different areas of cancer treatment such as medical oncology, radiation oncology, or surgical oncology.
As the demand for oncology services has grown, PAs have enabled primary oncologists to treat and help more cancer patients by making access more available.
Training for Physician Assistants in Oncology
Physician assistants are required to go through a traditional medical curriculum on a graduate degree level. Additionally, PA candidates must pass a national board certification exam. Physician assistants typically have an undergraduate degree and experience in a healthcare role, such as medical assistant or paramedic.
The standard physician assistant coursework includes anatomy, clinical assessment, behavioral medicine, healthcare policy and health information, pharmacotherapeutics, physiology, and surgery.
Additionally, PAs must go through a period of clinical training in disciplines such as behavioral medicine, emergency medicine, gynecology, internal medicine, long-term care, obstetrics, pediatrics, and medical, radiation and surgical oncology.
There is also study in laboratory, pathology, and radiology analysis. PAs in the oncology discipline do rotations in as many as a dozen different cancer areas that include breast, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, gynecological, head and neck, leukemia, lymphoma, melanoma, neurological, sarcoma, and thoracic.
PAs need to take a minimum of 100 hours of continuing education credits within a two-year period and pass a national board certification exam every six years.
The Changing Role of Physician Assistants in Oncology
In a time when the number of cancer patients is on the rise, oncology physicians understand the growing importance of the PAs’ role in cancer treatment. Higher demand for cancer medical services means that PAs will be in demand not only in the oncology treatment area or group practices, but also in academic centers.
An investigation presented at the 2008 ASCO Annual Meeting found that by the year 2020, there will be a shortage of personnel available to treat cancer patients. A proposed solution includes increasing the number of PAs to help with higher patient loads. Oncology physicians that have experience using PAs have stated that PAs have contributed to overall improvement of cancer patient treatment.