Anyone reading of the training and duties involved in the Hospital Corpsman (HM) rating cannot help but think how similar it sounds to the civilian job of Physician Assistant. There is a very good reason for that: the existence of over 85,000 clinically active Physician Assistants in the United States, District of Columbia, and U.S. territories is almost directly related to the work of military Corpsmen in general and Hospital Corpsmen in the Navy in particular.
It was in 1961 that a Dr. Charles Hudson made a recommendation to the American Medical Association that two new types of doctors’ assistants—drawn from “nonmedical, nonursing personnel”—should be created to assist doctors handle growing number of patients. Hudson suggested calling one of these groups “externs,” who he recommended would have two years of college education, two years of vocational training leading to a bachelor of science in medicine degree, and would perform duties falling somewhere between those of a technician and those of a physician. The other group would learn through on-the-job training in surgical inpatient divisions, operating rooms, and emergency wards. Hudson’s inspiration? Army and Navy Corpsmen, whom he felt had proven that laymen could in fact be highly efficient assistants with relatively little training.
Although it took the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association nine years following Hudson’s proposal to establish the guidelines for education and certification of physician assistants, Dr. Eugene Stead at Duke University launched a pilot PA program at Duke University, launching the first class of physician assistants in 1965 with students consisting of former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman.
And while Dr. Hudson and other proponents of the newly created position of physician assistant didn’t consider it at the time, their efforts were also fiscally sound. As the stagflation and growing unemployment that marked the 1970s set in, it was estimated that some 30,000 Corpsmen were being discharged from the various armed services each year, but only a third of them wound up working the field of civilian health care. Given the fact that taxpayers had already paid somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 for their training, educating these former service personnel to become physician assistants was simply a sound economic decision.