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A Physician Assistant’s Many Roles

Robert Wooten, P.A.-C., president of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, often tells fellow physician assistants (P.A.) that they are leaders. And just as often, they deny it.

But when Wooten spoke to the students in the P.A. program at GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), February 7, he urged them to think of themselves differently.

“You can deny it if you want to, but I will tell you to embrace it and enhance it,” he said. “The moment you start taking care of a patient, you are a leader to them.”

Wooten, a longtime friend and colleague of Jacqueline Barnett, P.A.-C., assistant professor of Health Care Sciences in SMHS, made a special detour on his visit to Washington, D.C., in order to speak to the students in SMHS’s P.A. program during their lunch break.

Throughout his presentation, Wooten shared anecdotes and wisdom from his decades-long career as a P.A. in both family medicine and cardiology. When he first entered the field to work in an underserved area in North Carolina, he wasn’t fully prepared for the many roles he would play, he said.

“I wasn’t prepared for the fact that I was going to be a mentor, a teacher, a preacher, and a social worker because that’s what it took to reach the patients that I had,” said Wooten. “I could deal with writing their prescriptions…but the things I wasn’t prepared for were all of the social and psychological problems that people have.”

But Wooten learned quickly that one the keys to being a successful P.A. is understanding the whole person behind the patient.

“When you go out into practice and are treating your patients, it’s more than just about writing a prescription. It’s about understanding the environment that you’re in, the people you are serving, and what is going on in their life,” he said.

Wooten advised students to connect with other health care professionals in their communities in order to ensure that patients’ needs are met. He told them to look for ways outside of healthcare to help their patients. From offering tutoring services to organizing book drives, the contributions P.A.s can make go beyond the clinic. 

Wooten admitted that the job — and particularly the navigation of a complicated, changing, and sometimes unfair healthcare system — can be frustrating. But he reminded students not to blame their patients. “Understand why they are there,” he said. “They are coming to you for help.”

Wooten applauded GW’s strong presence in the community and encouraged the students to remain active in community service after graduation. He also told them to be advocates — both for their patients and for their profession. “Be involved at the political realm,” he said, “because we need to be at the table when decisions are made.”

Despite his call for the future P.A.s to fully immerse themselves in their profession, Wooten told them not to lose sight of their own health, relationships, and interests. Good health and a solid support system are necessary, he said, in becoming a great health care provider.

Wooten laid out his vision for the future of the field as one that is not only politically vocal, but is also more diverse. He said that attracting people with different backgrounds is critical in eliminating health care disparities.

In the end, he said, “When you set out to practice, remember: Be a leader, be involved in advocacy, [and] do all that you can do to help your patients.”