The LSU Health Science Center in New Orleans will launch a program in January to train physician’s assistants to help improve access to primary care in the state.

“When you look at the changes occurring in health care right now, in terms of the (federal) Affordable Care Act increasing access to health care, the need for primary care providers is going up dramatically,” said Dr. James Cairo, dean of the School of Allied Health Professions.

Cairo said medical schools are trying to increase the number of primary care physicians to cope. “But the reality is we need more primary care providers. That’s where physician’s assistants fit into the whole situation,” he said.

More than 200 people applied in October for the 30 slots available in the New Orleans-based program, Cairo said. “That gives you an idea how popular and how needed this program is,” he said.

The New Orleans program becomes the third such master’s degree program in the state. The others are at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport and at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge. Tuition for the New Orleans school is $16,000 a year.

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician. They are trained to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illness, and provide treatment.

The average annual pay for a physician assistant was $86,410 in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Federal labor officials projected a 30 percent growth rate in the occupation between 2010 and 2020 — much higher than the average for all occupations.

There are now more than 700 licensed physician assistants in Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Academy of Physician Assistants.

“The population is aging. The Baby Boomers are going to have more need for health care, and the need for primary care providers is going up,” Cairo said.

Cairo said the program is also designed “to try to address the issue of rural medicine. The physician’s assistant can work under a physician and increase access to health care” in areas where physicians are in short supply.

The New Orleans program has been in development since 2007 and finally received national accreditation Sept. 15. LSU opened the application process Oct. 1, said Cairo. It is a 29-month program with the first students graduating in May 2015. The last 12 months involved a clinical rotation working under the supervision of a physician at a hospital, outpatient clinic or physicians’ office.

“The entire first class are Louisiana residents who have come from colleges and universities throughout the state. They typically are very qualified with 3.2 to 3.6 grade point averages,” Cairo said.

A physician’s assistant works under the supervision of a physician and provides “a lot of the work-up found in a clinical situation where the patient goes in to see the doctor,” Cairo said. “They do all the work-up and confer with the physician and work through follow-up.”

“It’s all based on evidence-based practice,” he said.

Cairo said the physician’s assistant degree program “works more on the medical model.”

In the late 1970s, physician’s assistants could not practice outside the military, government or public service arenas, according to the Louisiana Academy of Physician Assistants website.

In 2004, the Louisiana Legislature passed the state’s physician’s assistants prescriptive authority act, which expanded opportunities into the private arena. Under the law, PAs can prescribe noncontrolled drugs and schedule III through V controlled drugs as long as they have practiced clinically for at least one year.