Bartlett 'health care hero' advocates for physician assistants
Dealing with the trauma and harrowing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a transformative experience for Jennifer Orozco of Bartlett, who works as director of advanced practice providers at Rush University Medical Center.
Orozco was named a "health care hero" by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in December for her work, which included being responsible for COVID-19 testing and provider redeployment across the Rush hospital system. Being recognized for her work was humbling and overwhelming, especially because physician assistants typically don't earn such awards, Orozco said.
Orozco started a one-year term July 1 as president of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. As a result of the lessons learned and knowledge gained from the pandemic, she plans to focus on ensuring access to care, providing mental health services and expanding access to telemedicine, she said.
There are more than 150,000 physician assistants across the country, and their role is widely misunderstood, Orozco said.
"We have some of the most intense medical training besides a physician," said Orozco, who's worked in vascular surgery for the majority of her career. "We diagnose illnesses, manage treatment plans, write prescriptions. We do surgeries with physicians. Some (PAs) are the sole primary care providers for patients, especially in rural and underserved areas."
Most physician assistant programs last approximately three academic years and award master's degrees with classroom instruction and clinical rotations. Most students already have a bachelor's degree and about three years of health care experience, such as registered nurses, according to AAPA.
Physician assistants could be a great resource to deal with the growing shortage of physicians in the United States, Orozco said. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the country could see a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.
"Some of the shortages that we have and some of the challenges in the health care system, we have a solution in the physician assistants," she said.
However, physician assistants often are hampered by outdated state laws, Orozco said. For example, they can care for diabetic patients by managing treatment and ordering labs, but can't prescribe diabetic shoes. For that, they need to send patients to a physician, she said.
"Those are the kind of fractures in our medical system," she said.
Her resolve is to work at the state and national level to address those gaps and modernize laws to meet health care needs.
Orozco is a single mother of three children: sons Maddux, 13, and Matias, 10, who play for the Bartlett Raiders football team and daughter Belicia, 8, a cheerleader for the team.
This past year has been "really tough" for the family, she said, as she at times practically lived at the hospital with a babysitter in charge at home.
"There was lots of tears," she said, adding that many health care workers were in the same position.
But the pandemic also brought on a newfound realization that health care providers must prioritize caring for themselves and their own mental health to do their job effectively, she said.
"We are taught as health care providers that the patients are always first, no matter what. I think that is true, but I couldn't be this great provider and a great mother without taking care of myself," she said.
One major way Orozco does that is by cycling, a passion she discovered during COVID-19. With gyms closed, she took up the sport at the advice of a friend, and it has become a source of great joy and positive outlet for her stress, she said.
She's become a member of Psimet Racing team based in West Dundee and placed ninth as a novice last month in the Intelligentsia Cup Chicago, which included suburban races in Elgin, Mundelein, Winfield and more.
"It made me overall a better person and mother and leader," she said.