The physician assistant (PA) profession was int­­­roduced to Saudi Arabia in 2010 with the help of George Washington University. The Ministry of Defense introduced the PA program soon after the increase of Arab uprisings in the region mainly because it wanted to develop health-care professionals that were trained specifically to care for people in the battlefield.

The kingdom is now interested in introducing PAs into primary-care settings, where they are badly needed. Saudi Arabia has many health-care challenges — not only are they in the midst of introducing cooperative health care, which is a major health-care systems change, they also have many external challenges such as a rapidly growing population, an annual influx of pilgrims for religious ceremonies, and a public health transition from predominantly communicable disease patterns to non-communicable diseases.

All of these forces will impact Saudi health care and it will be interesting to see how things develop. Currently, Saudi Arabia depends largely on foreign medical professionals to deliver health care and currently only 17% of health-care professionals in Saudi Arabia are nationals. One thing is clear, there is a need for health-care providers in Saudi Arabia and the developments of the PA profession is a very exciting start.

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I met Naveed Ahmed, MD, who is the academic coordinator of the Physician Assistant program at the Prince Sultan Military College of Health Sciences, at the International Association of Physician Assistant Educators conference where he presented on the development of the Saudi PA.

The development of the physician assistant in Saudi Arabia

The PA profession started in Saudi Arabia in 2010. Ahmed tells me that it was created during the Arab uprising, because it was unclear what would happen globally, and the development of health-care professionals that could care for wounded soldiers in the field would be a prudent response to the waves of political change that were erupting all over the middle east.

The Ministry of Defense was interested in training PAs mostly in emergency medicine and trauma to work as first responders in the field, and as specialized health-care professionals in trauma and emergency medicine.

These PAs would also be responsible for caring for families of military personnel in mental health and disabilities due to the effect of combat. Those recruited and trained would be male lieutenants, who were currently in military training.