Physician assistants (PA) are integral to the healthcare system. Though the PA’s role differs by state and can even vary by facility, most PAs diagnose and treat patients, just as do physicians. They can also qualify for healthcare administration roles to become leaders in the medical field.
PAs do not need nearly as much schooling as physicians; a PA master’s can be completed in under two years (an MD takes four years of schooling, followed by up to seven years of residency). Although they don’t earn as much as medical doctors, PAs typically earn good money, with six-figure salaries the norm. They cannot operate independent health facilities, but for healthcare professionals more interested in delivering patient care than in running a business, that may be a positive.
This article answers the question What does a physician assistant do? It covers career paths and answers questions like:
America’s healthcare providers include approximately 150,000 physician assistants handling over 400 million patient interactions annually, according to the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA). PAs are trusted healthcare providers who ease the strain on the nation’s overtaxed healthcare system. While they cannot run their own practices, they do deliver services with near or total autonomy within a clinical setting. Like doctors, PAs are subject to state licensure regulations.
Physician assistants (occasionally called physician associates) perform many of the same functions as doctors when treating patients. According to a University of Pittsburgh blog post, PA training focuses primarily on preventative care. Many PAs work as general practitioners, but specialized career paths are also open to them with additional training.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physician assistant responsibilities include capturing medical histories (recording and reviewing), performing examinations, running and interpreting diagnostic tests (including x-rays), diagnosing, treating, and counseling patients, researching new treatments, and writing prescriptions. The specialization you choose will naturally impact your role; a PA practicing general medicine has a different job description than one working in emergency medicine or surgery.
PAs share similarities with nurse practitioners (NP), but with marked differences. Both professions require a master’s degree; both also offer a high level of autonomy, including the power to write prescriptions and establish treatment plans. However, PAs must record more clinical hours and complete more generalist coursework in their medical education than do NPs. NPs typically pursue specializations earlier in their careers.
PAs practice in a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, outpatient centers, educational environments, and government agencies. The BLS reports that over half of PAs work in physicians’ offices, followed by state, local, and private hospitals (26 percent). A physician assistant in a nursing home has a much different role than one who works in pediatrics.
Becoming a physician assistant requires a master’s degree (more later) and at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. PA master’s curricula commonly address family medicine, internal medicine, general surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.
After completing your degree, you’ll need to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A passing grade earns you a Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) designation. Before practicing, you must also complete your home state’s licensure requirements.
Though state laws differ, you’ll likely need to agree to a background check and prove your degree is accredited. You’ll also need to pay an application fee to get your license and complete abuse training. To maintain your certification, you’ll complete 100 hours of continuing education biannually over a ten-year period and then take a recertification exam. Starting in 2023, the NCCPA offers an alternate option allowing students to complete the recertification exam in portions, starting in their seventh year after initial certification.
Degrees that lead to a PA career include a Master of Science (MS) in PA studies, Master of Clinical Health Services (MCHS), and Master of Health Sciences (MHS). Whichever program you choose, make sure it’s accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
According to the AMA Journal of Ethics, the average PA program lasts 26.5 months, (the University of Pittsburgh’s PA program takes 24 months to complete). Part of the length is due to the 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.
There are ways to complete the degree more quickly. Drexel offers a hybrid bachelor’s degree and master’s program lasting a little over five years.
PA programs have stricter admissions requirements than most master’s degrees. While you may not need to complete a STEM degree, it’ll serve you well. Those without a science background typically need to complete bridge coursework in areas like chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, and biology.
Programs also require applicants to complete healthcare fieldwork hours before applying, though there isn’t a universal hour requirement. Pitt asks for need 500 hours of healthcare experience, including as a nurse, medical assistant, or EMT. AAPA says the average applicant has three years of relevant experience.
The AAPA mandates PA coursework in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, pathophysiology, behavioral science, and medical ethics. Programs spread the 2,000 clinical rotation hours out across different facilities, including hospitals. You’ll focus on primary care, though many specialization opportunities exist.
PAs have high mobility when it comes to specialization, according to Pitt. While PAs often focus on preventative care, the scope of practice is wide. This is partly because of the generalist education PAs receive. According to Mayo Clinic, PAs can specialize in areas like anesthesia, cardiology, dermatology, ENT/Otolaryngology, family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN), and surgery. Specialization frequently happens through post-degree certification and training. You may apply to a subspecialty fellowship (such as cardiovascular surgery) after a graduate program.
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