The role of physician assistants in rural health care: a systematic review of the literature

J Rural Health. 2011 Spring;27(2):220-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-0361.2010.00325.x. Epub 2010 Sep 2.


Purpose: A literature review was performed to assess the role of physician assistants (PAs) in rural health care. Four categories were examined: scope of practice, physician perceptions, community perceptions, and retention/recruitment.

Methods: A search of the literature from 1974 to 2008 was undertaken by probing the electronic bibliographic databases of English language literature. Criterion for inclusion was original data published on rural PAs. Each paper was assessed and assigned to the four categories.

Findings: A total of 51 papers were identified; 28 papers had a primary focus on research and specified PAs in a rural setting. Generally, the literature suggests that PAs provide cost-efficient and supplemental medical services to underserved rural populations and that these services are valued. It also appears that rural PAs possess a larger scope of practice than urban PAs. This broad range of skills and procedures may be necessary to match the extensive health care needs of underserved rural populations. Over a 35-year period of examination, the literature improved in numbers of PAs studied and the quality of research. However, the lack of longitudinal studies was considered a shortcoming of rural health PA observational research.

Conclusions: Through this review, some insights about the role of PAs emerged. Overall, they seem well adapted to rural health. Important issues regarding the recruitment and retention of PAs to rural populations also emerged. Improvement in enabling legislation contributes to the utilization of PAs in America.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physician Assistants*
  • Professional Role*
  • Rural Health Services*
  • Workforce