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SC residents are turning to these healthcare professionals as doctor shortages persist

Physician assistants are filling a crucial gap in access to healthcare needs and a shortage of primary care providers across South Carolina, according to a new poll.

35% of residents say South Carolina is failing to meet their healthcare needs due to several factors, including a shortage of healthcare professionals, according to a recent Harris poll. PAs, who are trained to provide a wide range of healthcare services under the supervision of licensed physicians are playing a key role in closing the gap, according to an article by FasterCapital. State residents are looking to PAs for their primary healthcare as opposed to medical doctors, who generally have longer appointment wait times.

The poll found South Carolinians wait 4.6 weeks on average for a needed medical appointment, longer than the national average wait of 3.9 weeks.

South Carolinian Katie Guffey started using a PA as her primary healthcare provider four years ago. She told The State she can easily secure an appointment with shorter wait times.

“Now, if it is something acute like where I need to be seen in a day, I would probably do an urgent care instead, if (my PA) can’t get me in that day,” Guffey said, who’s lived in South Carolina for the last seven years. “But for most other things, I can easily schedule an appointment and been seen within a reasonable time.”

Along with Guffey, more than 85% of South Carolinians surveyed said PAs make it easier to obtain medical appointments, according to the poll. And 66%, or 2 in 3, said they trust a PA to serve as their primary medical provider.

South Carolina ranks in the bottom half of the country in the availability of primary care doctors, according to research by the Cicero Institute. In 2021 — the latest available data — 41 of 46 counties in the state are experiencing a shortage of health professionals, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The shortages are disproportionately affecting low-income residents, especially those living in rural areas.

To alleviate the shortage, lawmakers introduced a bill last year to expand a PA’s scope of practice, offering residents an opportunity for greater and faster access to health care providers. The measure, however — S. 553 — is in a Senate committee and, therefore, likely won’t become law anytime soon.

“Outdated practice laws in South Carolina prevent certain providers, like PAs, from practicing medicine to the fullest extent of their training, education, and experience, despite having overwhelming support from patients surveyed in the poll (88%),” said Josh Birch, media relations manager for the American Academy of Physician Associates.

PAs are uniquely positioned to expand access to healthcare as they have the ability to diagnose and treat a range of medical conditions, prescribe medications and coordinate patient care, according to Gabrielle Poole, a PA and dean at Charleston Southern University’s College of Health Scientists.

“As someone who is committed to training the next generation of PAs, I see tremendous value ... in making sure that we do better in South Carolina to ensure we are providing equitable and accessible and cost effective health care to patients in the state,” Poole said.

92% of people polled agreed “fully utilizing all trained and educated healthcare providers, including PAs, improves patient health.”

South Carolina has seen an increase in the number of educational programs for PAs, which have become extremely competitive, according to Poole. He founded a PA program at Charleston Southern University in 2018. In its latest admission cycle, the program received over 1,700 applications, while only 35 were admitted.

South Carolina ranked 38th among states in primary care physicians per capita, according to a news release by the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. And 9% more South Carolinians lived in a primary care physician health professional shortage area than the national average (38% vs. 29%), the release said.

Poole emphasized that despite the number of South Carolinians who are looking to PAs for primary healthcare, the need for PAs to work collaboratively with MDs remains a critical and fundamental element in delivering quality medical care to patients.

“It’s certainly not anything different from PAs continuing to consult and work with MDs,” Poole said. “It’s just that we’re making an effort to create more access to care for our patients in South Carolina.”