Bridging the Gap in Telehealth Education and Practice: PA Educators Leading the Movement

By: PALLA – PA Leadership and Learning Academy of Maryland 

The American Healthcare System is poised to turn Telehealth and telemedicine into a permanent part of the healthcare delivery services. This revolution is driven largely by the convenience and satisfaction associated with Tele-enabled care and the potential that Telehealth offers in increasing access to care, improving communication and management of various disease conditions. Telehealth has the potential of enhancing quality and equity across the continuum of health care services. A recent report from NCCPA showed that about 20% of certified PAs participate in telemedicine delivery in their practice, with about 60% employed in practices or institutions that provide telemedicine services.1 Similarly, a recent study of 2,232 physicians revealed that 85% currently use telehealth and a majority are personally motivated to increase the use of telehealth in their practices.2 

Despite the well documented benefits of Telehealth and emerging national trends, there remains significant gaps in incorporating Telehealth competencies in PA education. It is clear that there is an urgent demand for more education around Telehealth and a need to produce future providers with competency to provide care via Telehealth modalities. In PA education, Telehealth-enabled care also has the potential to minimize some of the pain points around clinical site shortages. This is particularly relevant these days as the challenge for preceptors continues to worsen due to an increasing number of PA programs and the massive influx of offshore students who are paying for clinical sites and preceptors. 

Within the University System of Maryland, PA educators have embarked on a system-wide initiative to enhance the preparedness of PA students for Telehealth-enabled care. With the support of the PA Leadership and Learning Academy (PALLA), several steps are being taken to incorporate Telehealth competencies both in the didactic and clinical phases of PA educational programs. Through a collaboration with the American Board of Telehealth, PALLA will offer telehealth certification to all our PA students and collaborating preceptors. 

Recently, PALLA organized “A Day in the Life of a PA Telehealth Provider” event. The event brought together an interprofessional panel of experts with faculty, students, and clinicians across the state to discuss the rapidly rising profile of Telehealth in the PA profession. Jenna Schiller, PA-C, a key Telehealth expert and a 2021 graduate of the PALLA Fellowship, highlighted her path to becoming a Telehealth focused PA provider. Former PALLA fellows, David Bunnell, PA-C and Brittany Stokes, PA-C discussed the “why, how” and future of telehealth and provided advice for PA students who are interested in pursuing careers in this area, highlighting some of the benefits to both patients and providers. 

Led by Ms. Stokes, a primary care PA, the panel emphasized how telehealth services can address barriers to access, commenting that there is a “huge opportunity for PAs to take the lead and reach patients that might be otherwise overlooked or inadequately served.” Desmond Watts, PA-C, co-founder of AAPA’s PAs in Virtual Medicine and Telemedicine (PAVMT) specialty group, noted the ways in which COVID-19 has accelerated growth in virtual care and stressed the importance of shifting mindsets from “telehealth is better than nothing” to “telehealth is better,” citing a reduction of waste in the healthcare system as one of the primary drivers for expanded virtual services. Dave Bunnell, PA-C, a PA faculty member at Frostburg State University, discussed strategic ways to integrate Telehealth competencies into PA curriculum and emphasized the need for leadership and program-wide involvement.

As the use of Telehealth services is here to stay and is becoming ubiquitous, it is imperative to improve knowledge, skills, and attitudes amongst healthcare providers. A robust PA workforce with Telehealth competencies will require increased incorporation of these competencies into the PA curriculum. While there may be challenges as PA educators navigate this transition, there are also an abundance of resources available to foster PA Telehealth education. As PA educators, we have an opportunity to lead this movement; the ball is in our court.

1) National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Statistical Profile of Certified PAs National Commission on Certification of PAs. Atanta, GA; 2021.