Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the direction of physicians and surgeons. They are formally trained to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment. Working as members of the healthcare team, PAs take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X-rays, make diagnoses, and prescribe medications. They also treat minor injuries by suturing, splinting and casting. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy.
Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on a team under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are formally educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment.
Review patients’ medical histories.
Conduct physical exams to check patients’ health.
Order and interpret diagnostic tests, such as x rays or blood tests.
Make diagnoses concerning a patient’s injury or illness.
Give treatment, such as setting broken bones and immunizing patients.
Educate and counsel patients and their families—for example, answering questions about how to care for a child with asthma.
Prescribe medicine when needed.
Record a patient’s progress.
Research the latest treatments to ensure the quality of patient care.
Conduct or participate in outreach programs; talking to groups about managing diseases and promoting wellness.
Though prospective physician assistants can major in any area, a degree in health science provides the background knowledge needed when pursuing entry-level positions or advanced study. An undergraduate program may include Medical Terminology, Statistics, Healthcare Ethics, and Quantitative Methods. Most PA programs require applicants have at least three years of healthcare experience. Popular choices for gaining this experience include working as an EMT, paramedic, or nurse before applying.
Master’s degree requirements vary by school but most mandates at least 2,000 clinical hours be completed before entering the field. Some schools offer a physician assistant shadowing program or internship opportunities to fulfill the clinical rotation requirement. Prospective students must ensure any program under consideration is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
After completing a program accredited by the ARC-PA, graduates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Only those who graduate from an ARC-PA program may sit for the exam. The test is five hours long and consists of 300 multiple-choice questions designed to assess basic medical and surgical knowledge. Candidates may take the text six times over a period of six years. If a student does not pass within this timeframe, they must complete another ARC-PA educational program before attempting the exam again.
Physician assistants can advance their careers by specializing in fields such as nutrition, vascular health, ambulatory care, or orthopedic care.
Certified physician assistants need to take the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE) during the last two years of the six-year certification maintenance or the 10-year certification maintenance cycle. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) offers practice exams to help PAs prepare for the PANRE.
A bachelor’s degree specifically in physician assisting isn’t offered at most colleges and universities. Instead, those who know they want to pursue this career can earn a four-year degree in related disciplines. At some colleges, these programs also offer physician assistant tracks to prepare students for a master’s program. At this level, students cover key subjects such as human anatomy and physiology, psychology, medical physiology, pharmacology, and principles of clinical medicine. Graduates will have a thorough understanding of the physician assistant profession, ethical and moral behavior in the practice of medicine, and how to provide primary care services.
A master’s degree is the minimum education requirement for becoming a physician assistant. The first half of the three-year program is typically devoted to courses such as health care ethics, health care policy, and healthcare management, while the remaining time is spent gaining clinical experience. Throughout the course, students will develop advanced problem solving, critical thinking, and interpersonal skills that will serve them well once working with doctors and nurses in a medical setting.