The cost-effectiveness of physician assistants/associates: A systematic review of international evidence

PLoS One. 2021 Nov 1;16(11):e0259183. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259183. eCollection 2021.


Background: The global utilization of the physician assistant/associate (PA) is growing. Their increasing presence is in response to the rising demands of demographic changes, new developments in healthcare, and physician shortages. While PAs are present on four continents, the evidence of whether their employment contributes to more efficient healthcare has not been assessed in the aggregate. We undertook a systematic review of the literature on PA cost-effectiveness as compared to physicians. Cost-effectiveness was operationalized as quality, accessibility, and the cost of care.

Methods and findings: Literature to June 2021 was searched across five biomedical databases and filtered for eligibility. Publications that met the inclusion criteria were categorized by date, country, design, and results by three researchers independently. All studies were screened with the Risk of Bias in Non-randomised Studies-of Interventions (ROBIN-I) tool. The literature search produced 4,855 titles, and after applying criteria, 39 studies met inclusion (34 North America, 4 Europe, 1 Africa). Ten studies had a prospective design, and 29 were retrospective. Four studies were assessed as biased in results reporting. While most studies included a small number of PAs, five studies were national in origin and assessed the employment of a few hundred PAs and their care of thousands of patients. In 34 studies, the PA was employed as a substitute for traditional physician services, and in five studies, the PA was employed in a complementary role. The quality of care delivered by a PA was comparable to a physician's care in 15 studies, and in 18 studies, the quality of care exceeded that of a physician. In total, 29 studies showed that both labor and resource costs were lower when the PA delivered the care than when the physician delivered the care.

Conclusions: Most of the studies were of good methodological quality, and the results point in the same direction; PAs delivered the same or better care outcomes as physicians with the same or less cost of care. Sometimes this efficiency was due to their reduced labor cost and sometimes because they were more effective as producers of care and activity.

MeSH terms

  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Physician Assistants*
  • Retrospective Studies

Grant support

The author(s) received no specific funding for this work.