Physician assistants (PA) play a critical role when it comes to healthcare, from reducing emergency room wait times to increasing access to primary care and improving the quality of seniors’ care. PAs work alongside physicians and other health professionals, including nurses, to positively impact the patient experience at Scarborough Health Network (SHN) by helping to remove barriers to healthcare.
Aurthi Muthukumaran describes herself as a PA advocate, who is looking to shed light on the important and necessary work of PAs across SHN and the province.
SHN’s Network News recently invited Aurthi to participate in the following Q-and-A, where she explains why PAs are so important as a profession, how she entered the field, and what she finds most rewarding about her role.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What lead you to a career as a physician assistant?
I did my undergraduate studies in the science stream of kinesiology with a minor in medical sciences at Western University. I was always interested in medicine but wanted a career option with lateral mobility (in other words, the ability to switch specialties), shorter schooling and less costs endured financially. I came across the PA profession through a google search on different career options, and learned more when playing a varsity tennis match against a McMaster PA student, which then led me to apply for PA school.
I did my PA training at the University of Toronto and started at SHN’s emergency department in January 2021. It was definitely intense to start working on the frontline during a pandemic but the team of PAs and supervising physicians were super supportive to help with the steep learning curve in the emergency medicine specialty.
In January 2022, I switched to orthopaedic surgery to help with maternity leave coverage. I have enjoyed working with the orthopaedic surgeons to manage patients on the surgical floor, as well as assisting in the OR. I still got to keep in touch with emergency medicine by seeing ortho consults and picking up ED shifts to help my PA colleagues with coverage. I will be returning back to the ED in the new year but will still be involved with ortho in some capacity to facilitate patient care between the two departments.
What excites or rewards you about being a PA?
I think what makes any job exciting and rewarding is thoroughly enjoying what you do. What excites me the most about being a PA is the ability to practice medicine and be a part of a supportive group of interprofessional healthcare team members to make a positive impact in patient care. PAs share the workload with their supervising physicians, reducing ED wait times and physician burnout; spend more time with patients for appropriate counselling and discharge instructions; and much more!
Personally, I enjoy the versatility of the PA role, where you can work in multiple specialities and continue to learn and grow to be well-rounded. It’s also rewarding to serve here in Scarborough because it allows me to speak and connect with so many Tamil patients, helping them navigate the healthcare system and providing me with a sense of giving back to the community I’m from.
Recently, you helped with how SHN and SHN Foundation recognized our PAs on social media (and internally) for National Physician Assistant Day in November. What drove you to go above and beyond in leading how we share your colleagues’ incredible work?
As I did more research and shadowed practicing PAs in Canada, I became passionate about joining this trailblazing community close to home. I think part of joining the PA profession in Canada comes with the responsibility to advocate for the role, whether it’s in the work you do or actively taking on initiatives such as this.
My passion for advocacy started when I opened an Instagram account (@aurthi.pa) the summer before starting PA school, to share my journey as a UofT PA student, showcasing the training we go through and—fast forward over three years—what life as a practicing physician assistant is like now.
Throughout the past few years, I’ve done interviews to talk about the profession and my training, as well as talks for high school and university programs about the profession. I am only two years into practice and I definitely look up to some of my senior PA colleagues as role models, who’ve been practicing for five to eight-plus years at SHN—definitely something I thought worth highlighting this year for National Physician Assistant Day!
Describe a day in the life of a PA.
A day in the life of a PA will vary depending on the specialty:
- When I was in the ED, I typically worked 10-hour shifts, with start times spanning from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; the shift work reflects the 24-hour coverage in the ED. We collaborate with the supervising physicians on shift, and a new doctor would come in every couple of hours throughout the day.
Our scope of practice mirrors that of our supervising physician, so we would do anything from seeing a patient and starting the visit with a history and physical; discussing the case with the doctors to order appropriate investigations and treatment options; calling specialists for consults or handover cases for admission; as well as assisting with procedures such as suturing a laceration, casting/splinting a broken bone, performing incision and drainage for abscess, and more! The awesome thing about working alongside the doctors is that there’s opportunity to bounce ideas, learn around cases, and assist and learn new procedures.
- My day in the life as an orthopaedic surgery PA: the schedule is more consistent, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday; however, there are days I start early to assist in the operating room and stay late to help with consults. I usually start the day with pre-rounding and reviewing patient charts on our clinical information system, Epic, followed by attending bullet rounds with the team of allied health professionals.
I then see patients on the ward, manage them medically, consult other specialists as needed, attend family meetings, and then later on in the afternoon, I help with assessing and discharging same-day surgery patients, which include hip- and knee-replacement patients. I also assist in the fracture clinic as needed, and will also see consults in the ED when they come up, collaborating with the orthopaedic surgeon on-call.
Any words about working at SHN and your team members?
SHN is a great place to help new graduates grow with supportive staff members and the opportunity to pursue your interests.
For example, I am currently enrolled in the health equity certificate program, which involves a series of sessions conducted by experts in different fields, discussing the impact of social determinants of health and exploring innovative approaches to address health disparities. These sessions have been eye-opening in highlighting the barriers to accessing care in the community I serve and have sparked an interest to pursue further work in this field.
All the staff members from physicians, to nurses and allied health professionals are supportive and great to work with in the ED, surgical floor, and operating room.
Specifically, the PA group shares a sense of community, where the senior PAs are like mentors; even some of your supervising physicians become friends as you continue to work and grow alongside them. This is important and it helped us deal with the burnout from working long and tiring days in the ED during the pandemic.
Is there anything important you would like the community to know about your work?
Considering PAs are a growing profession in Canada, I think it’s important to celebrate when a group of well-established PAs in a hospital network impact patient care. I hope showcasing them will help patients and other community members identify PAs as a vital aspect of their visit to the ED departments or the orthopaedic surgical services.
So, next time you visit an SHN hospital, make sure to keep an eye out for PAs. We’re part of the SHN healthcare team and are excited to continue making a positive impact in your care!