What Does a Physician Assistant (PA) Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a physician assistant: Prescribe medications, Administer immunizations, Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), Stitch wounds and set bones

The Balance / Bailey Mariner

Physician assistants (PAs) examine patients, prescribe medicine, and order diagnostic tests. In most cases, they work under the supervision of physicians or surgeons, but they can work more independently in some states, rural areas, and inner-city areas, consulting with physicians only when they need help with cases.

Approximately 129,400 physician assistants worked in the U.S. in 2020, and more than half of them were employed in physicians' offices. PAs also work in hospitals, urgent care centers, and colleges and universities.

Physician Assistant Duties & Responsibilities

Physician assistants perform many of the same functions as traditional medical doctors:

  • Interview and examine patients to determine a diagnosis.
  • Order tests to ascertain the nature and extent of illnesses and injuries.
  • Prescribe medications and suggest lifestyle changes to remedy medical problems.
  • Stitch wounds and set bones.
  • Administer immunizations.
  • Maintain patient records and provide documentation for insurance companies.

Physician assistants can specialize in areas like psychiatry, pediatrics, dermatology, or surgery. They work for hospitals, group medical practices, colleges, and government agencies.

Working as a physician assistant can be an alternative career path for someone who is interested in medicine but wants to get started sooner than the time it would take to become a physician. PAs often have more limited costs for medical liability insurance.

Physician Assistant Salary

The highest-paid physician assistants work in outpatient care centers.

  • Median Annual Salary: $115,390 ($55.48/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $162,470 ($78.11/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $76,700 ($36.87/hour)

Education, Training & Certification

Physician assistants are formally educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment.

  • Education: Graduate school, typically a master’s degree from an accredited educational program, is required. PAs must complete two years of full-time postgraduate study to earn the degree. Most applicants to physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience. The graduate programs include classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects including pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics.
  • Training: You will also need hundreds of hours of supervised clinical training in different practice areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.
  • Licensure: Physician assistants must be licensed in every U.S. state and the District of Columbia. You must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to become licensed. A physician assistant who passes the exam can use the credential Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).
  • Continuing Education: Continuing education is required to maintain certification. Physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years. A recertification exam is required every 10 years.

Physician Assistant Skills & Competencies

Here’s a list of the most commonly sought skills in physician assistants. Skills will vary based on the exact position for which you're applying.

  • Patient and care team communications: Physician assistants must be able to communicate clearly and compassionately with patients and their colleagues within often stressful medical treatment settings.
  • Analytical skills: Strong analytical talents are as important for physician assistants as they are for medical doctors in ensuring accurate patient diagnoses and the implementation of responsive care plans.
  • Interpersonal skills: Solid interpersonal skills, also known as “soft skills," are key to displaying a good bedside manner when working with sick or injured individuals.
  • Technical skills: Physician assistants must be more technically savvy than they were in previous generations. They must be able to use electronic medical records systems and other technology.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of physician assistants is expected to expand by 31% from 2020 to 2030. Increased demand for medical services from an aging population and efforts to limit the costs of delivering medical services performed by doctors are factors impacting this growth.

Work Environment

This can be a physically demanding career. You'll be lifting, shifting, and maneuvering patients who are unable to do these things for themselves, and the job also requires long hours on your feet. This is particularly true for those who work in hospital and operating room settings.

This job can be emotionally draining as well, due to ongoing involvement with the sick, the handicapped, patients who aren't expected to recover, and grieving and worried families.

Work Schedule

This is typically a full-time job. Most physician assistants work at least 40 hours a week and some regularly work overtime. Weekend and holiday hours are sometimes required, and some physician assistants are required to be on call at odd hours as well as during business hours when they would otherwise be off in case of emergency.

How to Get the Job

APPLY: Check the top job sites for physician assistant job openings.

DON'T OVERLOOK THE POWER OF NETWORKING: Consider joining an association like the American Academy of PAs (AAPA) to broaden your potential job contacts. This site also provides job listings.

DEMONSTRATE SOFT SKILLS IN JOB INTERVIEWS: When asked about your skills and experience, emphasize your ability to communicate, listen, and connect with patients.

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