What Is a Physician Assistant?

Definition & Examples of Physician Assistants

Senior woman talking to a physician assistant.
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A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who practices under the direction of a licensed physician.

Learn more about PAs, what they do, and how to become one.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a member of a medical team that includes doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Commonly called a PA, these individuals provide primary medical services.

Sometimes a PA is incorrectly called a physician's assistant, implying that they assist a doctor instead of being a primary care provider in their own right. While PAs must be supervised by doctors, they don't have to be on the premises of the medical facility while the PA is working with a patient.

  • Acronym: PA

How a Physician Assistant Works

As care providers, PAs can perform a wide range of services, including:

  • Taking comprehensive medical histories
  • Performing physical exams
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Collaborating with the other members of the patient's healthcare team
  • Diagnosing injuries and illnesses
  • Prescribing medications
  • Documenting and communicating relevant patient information
  • Counseling and educating patients regarding health maintenance and disease prevention

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants earned a median annual salary of $112,260 in 2019. A median salary means that half of all PAs earned more and half earned less. PA employment is expected to grow much faster than average through 2028.  Most PAs work full-time in doctors' offices and hospitals.

Requirements for a Physician Assistant

To become a PA, you'll need to earn a master's degree from a PA training program that has received accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). These programs typically take three academic years.

Entrance requirements for PA training programs vary, but at least two years of college coursework, including classes in chemistry, anatomy, and biology are generally required. Many PA programs also require a significant amount of hands-on patient care experience. You can gain this experience in several ways, including working as an EMT or paramedic, medical assistant, phlebotomist, nurse, medical technician, or as a certified nursing assistant.

Once accepted into a PA program, coursework includes pathology, anatomy, diagnosis, and medical ethics and along with participation in supervised clinical training in one or more areas of medicine.

After graduation, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require PAs to obtain a professional license. To do this, you must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers.

PA certification must be renewed every 10 years. Re-certification requires completing 100 hours of continuing education every two years and take a re-certification exam every 10 years. The NCCPA maintains a list of licensing boards for each state.

Some confuse physician assistants with medical assistants, but they're very different. A PA is a primary care provider with a master's degree, while a medical assistant performs basic clinical tasks and may have a certificate from a post-secondary program.

Essential Physician Assistant Skills

There's more to becoming a PA than education and technical knowledge. Employers will be looking for a range of ​soft skills, including:

  • Compassion: You must show empathy and understanding toward patients and families who may be in distress.
  • Active listening: Understanding what patients are saying and responding appropriately requires careful attention.
  • Communication: The ability to explain procedures and treatments to patients and caregivers is essential.
  • Critical thinking: When treating a patient, it's essential to identify the patient's illness or injury and develop a treatment plan. This allows you to evaluate all possible treatment options before choosing the one that will have the best outcome.
  • Work ethic: You must be dependable, hardworking, and willing to work long hours.
  • Sensitivity: Tact and diplomacy are required to effectively handle a broad range of sensitive personal situations.
  • Confidentiality: Patient privacy laws must be followed. You will also need to discern when it's best to speak with a patient alone rather than in the presence of a family member or caregiver.

Key Takeaways

  • A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who practices under the direction of a licensed physician.
  • PAs provide primary care services, including performing exams, ordering tests, and prescribing medicines.
  • To become a PA, a master's degree and a license in the state where you want to practice are required.
  • In addition to technical skills, PAs need to demonstrate a range of soft skills, including compassion, critical thinking, and sensitivity.