‘Vital’ American Academy of Physician Assistants survey outlines coronavirus struggles: A lack of PPE, furloughs and burnout

A lack of personal protective equipment. Reductions in pay. Burnout.

Those are among the challenges faced by physician assistants during their battle against the novel coronavirus, according to a survey released Tuesday by the American Academy of Physician Assistants. The survey took responses from 743 PAs over a 12-day period, according to the AAPA. 

Almost 39% of respondents treating COVID-19 patients say they have gone without PPE. In one set of survey data, 3.6% of PAs say they’ve been infected with COVID-19. 

Dr. Jonathan Sobel, senior administrative director of advanced clinical providers at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, praised the versatile work of PAs, noting that 10% of survey respondents had changed practice settings.

“PAs are trained, you know in this generalist model, and then we sort of differentiate out into the different areas we work so we’re very flexible and adaptable to be able to go into those situations and so this was really the almost perfect use case for PAs,” said Sobel, a member of the AAPA board.

The AAPA noted, “In most states, PAs are required to have and maintain a relationship with a specific physician in order to practice.” Governors in Maine, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia signed executive orders effectively waiving that restriction, according to the AAPA. 

Some PAs who answered the survey say the pandemic has affected their employment status. Some were furloughed (22.1%), and others were terminated (3.1%). The majority (58.7%) say their hours were reduced, and 30.6% say their base pay was reduced. 

“I think the survey is really vital because it shows that we’re absolutely on the front lines, taking care of patients and that, in many areas, they were utilized in a way that helped the pandemic come under control,” Sobel said.

PAs share a fear for the health and safety of their families: More than 650 of nearly 700 practicing respondents say they are at least “slightly worried.” The majority (43%) say they are “somewhat worried.” 

Some of the PAs who clinically practiced in the past four months indicate they feel burnout. Though the majority say they aren’t feeling burnt out, 27.1% say they feel some symptoms – 2.5% say they “often wonder if [they] can go on.” 

Dr. Tim McCall, the AAPA’s associate director for surveys and analysis, said some of the survey results are surprising. McCall is a faculty member at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at George Washington University.

McCall pointed to the burnout – or lack thereof.

“We’re really surprised, in a pleasant way, that with PAs being on the front lines, and this being a crisis that they’re having to deal with, we’re seeing similar rates of burnout to what we saw at this time last year,” McCall said, adding that the AAPA will continue to monitor burnout in a follow-up survey in June.

The AAPA represents more than 131,000 PAs nationwide, according to its website. 

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