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Profession Overview

Physician assistants (PA) work under the supervision of a physician or surgeon; however, their specific duties and the extent to which they must be supervised differ from state to state.

Physician Assistant Overview

Physician assistants typically do the following:

  • 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.

Is physician assistant a possible career for you?

Do you have the following qualities? If so, PA may be a good fit.

  • Communication skills: Physician assistants must explain complex medical issues in a way that patients can understand. They must also communicate with doctors and other healthcare workers to ensure that they provide the best possible patient care.
  • Compassion: Many physician assistants are drawn to the profession by a desire to help people. They should enjoy helping others.
  • Detail oriented: Physician assistants should be focused and observant to evaluate and treat patients properly.
  • Emotional stability: Physician assistants, particularly those working in surgery or emergency medicine, should be able to work well under pressure. They must remain calm in stressful situations in order to provide quality care.
  • Problem-solving skills: Physician assistants need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They must be diligent when investigating complicated medical issues so that they can determine the best course of treatment for each patient.

Professional Education

Degree Offered

Baccalaureate (B.S./B.A.) degree is required for Masters programs. Typically, a Master’s degree is required from a program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA).

Years of Study

At least 2 years of full-time study for PA Masters programs

Licensure Required

All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, they must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A physician assistant who passes the exam may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”

To keep their certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years. Beginning in 2014, the recertification exam will be required every 10 years.

Choosing a physician assistant program

Factors to consider when choosing a PA program:

  • Required coursework pre-requisites
  • Required/recommended number of patient contact hours
  • Program content
  • Geographic location
  • Start date (not all programs begin in the fall).
  • Faculty
  • Facilities
  • Experiential training opportunities
  • Class size
  • Student demographics
  • Cost

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook