PAs gain authority during COVID-19 pandemic, but still face layoffs, furloughs

Dive Brief:

  • About 22% of the nation’s physician assistants have been furloughed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report from the American Academy of Physician Assistants, which surveyed 743 PAs, both members and non-members, between April 25 and May 6.
  • Roughly 4% of PAs said they had been terminated from their jobs, while 59% cited a reduction in hours and 30% cited a reduction in base pay. The survey also found a sharp increase in PAs changing specialties or practice settings.
  • Physician shortage concerns at the onset of the pandemic led states to waive some practice requirements for PAs, such as granting them the authority to diagnose patients and prescribe medication without a legal practice agreement with a doctor, which was previously required. Health systems, however, are still grappling with depleted volumes, and PAs are facing furloughs, layoffs and reduced hours.

Dive Insight:

Advocacy groups say PAs are highly trained professionals bound by archaic rules that prohibit them from practicing to the full extent of their education. But like so many other regulations that providers formerly had to abide by, the pandemic has changed that.

Over the past few months, 21 states have taken action — eight through executive orders — to waive practice requirements for PAs. Some include allowing PAs to practice without a legal agreement binding them to the doctor they work for. Others allow them to perform certain medical services without a doctor’s supervision.

The AAPA survey looks at experiences PAs reported having in the past 10 weeks in an effort to measure the pandemic’s effect on more than 140,000 PAs practicing in the U.S.

One notable finding was that over the past 10 weeks, the number of PAs who changed specialties or practice settings nearly equals the number who made those changes throughout the entire year of 2019.

Overall, 10% of PAs who responded to the survey said they changed practice settings and 6% said they changed specialties. Those figures likely indicate PAs still working are being rapidly redeployed in specialties and settings wherever they’re most needed, according to the report.

Another shared experience PAs reported — in line with that of other medical professionals working through the pandemic — is a lack of personal protective equipment.

About 30% of PAs in the survey said they’ve gone without necessary PPE while treating patients in recent months. Nearly 40% said they’ve treated COVID-19 patients and gone without necessary PPE in recent months.

Researchers also tried to gauge morale among the PA workforce. The majority, 52%, said that while they’re occasionally under stress and don’t always have as much energy as they once did, they don’t feel burned out.

About 20% said they are definitely burning out and have one or more symptoms of burnout, such as physical and emotional exhaustion.