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For more information on physician assistant programs, the PA profession, employment opportunities and salaries, and obtaining credentials, please contact the following:

American Academy of Physician Assistants

National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, Inc.

Association of PA Programs

American Association of Anatomists

Anatomy Interactive

Author Info

M’Lou B. Stevens, PA-C
National Institutes of Health
Washington, D.C.

What is a physician assistant (PA)?

A PA is a health professional licensed by the state or certified by a federal employer to practice medicine with the supervision of a physician (doctor). PAs practice as part of a team with their supervising physicians. They perform a wide range of medical duties including diagnosing and treating illness and injuries, providing medical emergency care, assisting in major surgery, and providing pre- and post-operative care. PAs are trained to provide approximately 80 percent of the services usually designated to a doctor in a primary care or general medical service setting. Responsibilities of a PA depend on the PA’s training, experience, state law, and what the supervising physician delegates to the PA. Currently forty states, the District of Columbia, and Guam authorize PAs to write and sign prescriptions without the physician’s co-signature.

What makes a good physician assistant?

PA programs look for students who want to study, work hard, and be of service to other people. A good PA must have an interest in and an understanding of how the human body functions. She should have a desire to work with people as well; compassion and honesty are as important as inquisitiveness and scientific aptitude. As in all fields, common sense, too, is helpful. The good PA listens well and is aware of the patient’s feeling about the medical problem, not just the problem itself. She must be able to recognize what are the most important questions to ask a patient so that she and the physician can determine the diagnosis and plan the best treatment.

What is life as a physician assistant like?

Physician assistants perform physical examinations, diagnose illnesses, formulate and carry out treatment plans, order and know how to analyze laboratory tests and other diagnostic studies, assist in surgical procedures and sew up wounds, apply casts on broken bones, and provide information to the patient on care of his/her illness or injury and on prevention of disease.

PAs and their supervising physicians often work in the same location, so that there can be immediate consultation between the physician assistant, doctor, and patient in unusual or complicated cases. But most states do not require that PAs and their supervising physicians are at the same location; states require the supervising physician to be immediately available for consultation either in person or by telephone, radio, or other method. This allows PAs to treat patients in remote areas that might otherwise not have immediate access to medical care (e.g., rural towns, Alaska, Native American reservations, migrant farm workers’ locations, ships, etc.)

How do I become a physician assistant?

Most programs require you to have some previous health care experience (e.g., nurse’s aide, home health care aide, or military medical experience) and some college courses. Most people who apply to a PA program have a college degree. College courses typically required before you apply to a PA program include English, math, biology, microbiology, chemistry, medical terminology, and psychology. There are currently 104 PA programs in the U.S. located at colleges, universities, medical schools, or teaching hospitals, and through the Armed Forces.

A typical PA program is two years in length. The first year includes classroom lectures and lab sessions in anatomy, physiology (how the body works), microbiology, pharmacology (how medicines work), medical decision-making, and patient education. The second year is spent in clinical rotations with other health care professionals such as medical students, interns, and residents in areas of family and internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, mental health, and other specialties. Depending on the specific PA program, the credentials awarded include a Certificate of Completion, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or Graduate Certificate of Completion. After graduation from an accredited PA program, you may choose to obtain even more specialized training in a post-graduate residency program. Some of the specialty areas currently offering this training include emergency medicine, surgery, orthopedics, neonatology, and occupational medicine.

After graduating from a PA program, a PA must pass a national certification examination developed by the National Board of Medical Examiners and administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A lifetime of learning continues as every PA must take continuing medical education classes throughout her or his career and pass a national recertification examination every six years. This helps to insure that each PA will maintain a core competency of medical and surgical knowledge.

What/where are the jobs? This image shows a physician assistant administering a vaccine to an infant..

PAs work in many different types of health care settings. Some work in hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, schools, and private companies. PAs also work for the U.S. government in the military, Public Health Service, Veterans Administration, Bureau of Prisons, and in the White House. PAs serve communities of all sizes, from remote and rural towns to major cities. Most PAs work in primary care medicine—general or family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology (women’s health), pediatrics (child health), and mental health. But many also work in specialty areas such as orthopedics, surgery, neonatology (newborn care), and occupational (work-related) medicine. PAs can also work in educational settings like colleges or universities where they may offer medical care and/or teach other health care students, in health care administration, and in medical research settings.

The profession has grown so that now there are approximately 30,000 practicing PAs in the U.S. The demand for PA services is rapidly increasing as a result of increased recognition of the quality of care that PAs provide and the cost-effectiveness of those services. The Department of Labor projects that the total employment in the U.S. will grow by 14 percent through the year 2005. During that same period the number of PA jobs is expected to grow by 23 percent.