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Is it true that PAs get to spend more time with their patients than doctors? 

By Alyson Rockhold PA-C, MPH

PAs have more time with patients: Fact or Fiction?

The professors in my physician assistant (PA) program repeatedly stated that PAs spend more time with patients than doctors. As a PA student, this was a major selling point for me. I was excited to get to know my patients and have the time to provide excellent patient education and answer all of their questions.

After working as a PA for over a decade, I am starting to wonder if my professors were lying. I see an average of 25 patients a day, and I often wish I had more time with them. There always seems to be more questions to answer or advice to share when it’s time to move on to the next patient.

The doctors that I work with see a similar patient load. They also bemoan the overbooked schedules that make us all feel like we are perpetually running behind. Do I really spend more time than doctors do with each patient?

I decided to do a little digging. I waded through many research papers to discover how PAs spend their time and how that compares to how doctors spend their time.

How PAs spend their time

There is an interesting survey by Florence Health (huddle.florence-health.com) that surveyed over 1,000 medical providers about their workdays. Their results showed that mid-level providers, such as nurse practitioners (NPs) and PAs, spend about 54% of their days with patients. The rest of their day is spent on patient-centered tasks, administrative work, and conferring with colleagues.

Patient-centered tasks take up 24% of their time and include charting, ordering labs, and interpreting results. Administrative work accounts for 13% of a PAs day and involves insurance paperwork and similar tasks. Then about 7% of the time PAs are consulting with their supervising physician or talking with their team.

The mid-level providers in the Florence Health study said in an ideal world, they would hope to increase from 54% to 68% of their time with their patients. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who feels rushed with her patients! I guess it’s universal that most medical professionals wish that charting and dealing with insurance would take up less of our time.

Is there a difference between how much time doctors and PAs spend with patients?

There was a large study of over 50,000 PAs, NPs, and doctors that worked in community health centers from 2006-2010 (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26250629/). This research showed that all medical providers spend about 20 minutes with each patient. No major time differences were seen between how much time doctors and mid-level providers spent with each patient.

I wonder how this data would differ if it included health professionals at hospitals or private practices. It would be interesting to see if this trend is stable across a variety of healthcare settings. I’ve started some preliminary research by bringing the topic up with friends from PA school. Many of them state that they spend more time with their patients than the doctors in their practice. I also asked a few doctors who told me that their extra tasks such as supervising mid-level providers or dealing with a heavier load of administrative responsibilities limit their time with patients. The discrepancy between the research and anecdotal evidence makes me think that more studies are needed to reach a full conclusion.

So did my professors lie? Well, there’s a bit more to the story.

The study also showed that PAs see patients a larger portion of the week (3.8 days) than physicians (3.5 days) and NPs (3.4 days). Physicians may spend their extra time doing more administrative duties or supervising their mid-levels. And NPs are sometimes given different tasks such as supervising nurses.

In summary, the two studies I found show that PAs and doctors spend the same amount of time with patients, but PAs see more patients overall. However, I think the real conclusion is that more studies are needed to answer this question fully!