New frontier in medical careers

Fri, 9 Feb 2018
PA Tanya Buchanan and Damien with patient

It’s not every day you find yourself fashioning a make-shift breathing apparatus for a critically ill two day old baby, but for Physician Assistant and James Cook University (JCU) graduate, Tanya Buchanan, it was all in a day’s work.

The lifesaving experience happened while Tanya was on a JCU remote medical placement as a physician assistant in the Solomon Islands.

“They didn’t really have the resources there so we had to make do with what we had and make it fit.

“We had a baby over there who needed nasal C-Pap and we didn’t have that so we found this World Health Organisation guideline. We actually made one by getting a formula bottle and cutting up tubing and a clamp and it worked.

“It was a case of if we don’t do it and give it a go, she will die.

“We really weren’t sure that she would make it, but she was an amazing little fighter and pulled through brilliantly.”

The experience of working in the Solomons is one she won’t forget in a hurry.

“I did about nine weeks or so there, it was fabulous, just so much fun.”

As a Physician Assistant, Tanya is breaking new ground in an emerging medical career in Australia.

She decided to follow the career path to become a Physician Assistant after 15 years in the ambulance service as an intensive care paramedic.

Her desire to challenge herself and pursue a more medical role saw her enrol in the JCU Physician Assistant course in 2013.

She admits the course was challenging, and studying and working full-time was heavy going.

But the practical work and placements brought it all together for her.

“As a paramedic I used to do management of injury to the hospital, but now I get to manage them further on.

“I do a lot more looking at injuries, doing referrals to orthopaedics or to specialists in their pathway through ED (Emergency Department), and I get to do more long term and short term care.”

Having graduated from the JCU course in 2016, Tanya is now working as a Physician Assistant in a private hospital in regional Victoria.

On any given day she might find herself collecting patient histories, performing physical examinations, interpreting diagnostic tests and formulating assessments and plans based on her clinical decision making skills in collaboration with her supervising Consultant.

Physician Assistants work in a range of clinical settings, including hospitals and general practices. They’re not a widely recognised health professional group in Australia yet, but the role is well established and popular in a number of countries around the world.  There are more than 115,000 PAs working in the USA alone. Physician Assistants also work in Canada, Germany, India, the Netherlands and South Africa.

Queensland became the first state in Australia to introduce Physician Assistants in the public health system five years ago

James Cook University started offering the course in 2012 to graduates of other health degrees, or those with extensive experience in health related fields.

Graduates can be found working as Physician Assistants across a number of private and public hospitals and GP clinics.  One has even returned to his native Germany and is working in a hospital emergency department in Berlin.

“The newness of the role in Australia can sometimes mean that there are strange looks and questions for students on clinical placements,” said the Dean of the College of Medicine and Dentistry at JCU, Professor Richard Murray.

“It also means it’s more challenging to find the right employment opportunity after graduation. For many however, being a pioneer in something new and exciting for the community is exactly what they sign up for.

“It needs the right sort of person who is in it for the right reasons,” Professor Murray said.

Tanya agrees that while there’s a lot of work to do to educate the public about the role, she’s already started recommending the career to a number of former and current colleagues.

“A couple of my old colleagues are now actually doing the course and a couple of the nurses here have asked me about it… and they’ve looked thoughtful.”

More details on JCU’s Physician Assistant program