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What is a Physician Assistant?

What is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants (PAs) represent one of the fastest-growing positions in the healthcare field. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the need for physician assistants will increase nearly 40 percent over the next decade as 60 million baby boomers enter their senior years and require extensive medical services. In addition, the ongoing lack of primary care doctors practicing today means many new opportunities have emerged for physician assistants. The Department of Labor further estimates over 40,000 PAs will be hired from 2018 until 2026.

What is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants are members of medical teams comprised of doctors, nurses, surgeons or other types of healthcare professionals. They perform examinations, diagnose illnesses, order laboratory and imaging tests, prescribe medication and administer treatment to patients. PAs may also specialize in different medical fields, such as orthopedics, family practice, gastroenterology or cardiology.

Additional duties include:

  • Collaborating with members of a patient’s medical care team to offer recommendations regarding treatment plans
  • Providing assistance to surgeons performing inpatient or outpatient surgeries
  • Interpreting blood tests and imaging scan results
  • Counseling patients about their health conditions and prescription medications
  • Taking vital signs, drawing blood and treating serious wounds that do not require surgery

The only two differences between a medical doctor (MD) and a physician assistant is that MDs spend nine to 10 years in school and are licensed to operate an independent practice. PAs attend four to five years of school and can only practice in partnership with an MD. PAs cannot practice independently.

Don’t confuse physician assistants with medical assistants (MAs). You do not need formal training or a license to work as a medical assistant. Also, educational requirements for MAs are either earning a vocational certificate or two-year associate’s degree in medical assisting.

Why are Physician Assistants so Important?

Emerging as a direct response to the physician shortage of the 1960s, physician assistants continue to treat patients who have difficulty accessing healthcare. In addition, the continually expanding role of PAs makes it possible for patients to receive specialty care in fields as unique as pediatrics, oncology, geriatrics and neurology. Physician assistants also relieve the heavy load of routine work performed by busy MDs. When doctors employ PAs as part of their practice, they make it easier and more convenient for patients to receive much-needed healthcare services.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) provides in-depth information about how a pre-med student can become a PA. The AAPA states that applying to schools with PA programs is highly competitive and recommends students applying during their freshman year at college.

Most PA programs have certain prerequisite courses students must complete before they consider applying. These prerequisites include human physiology and anatomy, chemistry and microbiology. Also required is experience with providing patient care as an intern or through employment. Health care experience can be obtained by being a medical assistant, paramedic, phlebotomist, lab assistant, emergency medical technician, registered nurse or certified nursing assistant.

Physician assistant programs last about three years and culminate in students earning a master’s degree. Programs involve clinical rotations, classroom instruction, and testing. Students will complete over 2,000 hours in several clinical rotations in doctor’s offices, long-term/acute care facilities and ambulatory clinics offering primary care services. Rotations may also include stints in pediatric, obstetrics/gynecology and psychiatric clinics or hospital wards.

After graduating from an accredited physician assistant program, students can then sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) given by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

Upon passing PANCE, students are eligible to practice as a PA-C, or a Physician Assistant-Certified. Every two years, certified PAs must submit proof of completing continuing education credits online to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

All PAs must obtain a license from their state’s licensing board. Students can find a complete list of state licensing boards here.

PA Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median pay of physician assistants in 2018 was nearly $109,000 annually. The job outlook estimate over the next 10 years is 37 percent, a much faster rate compared to other careers. Well over 39,000 new openings for physician assistants are also expected from now until 2026.

The BLS has compiled a list of states with above-average employment levels for PAs. Students passing the PANCE and earning their license to work as a PA are more likely to find employment in these states: New York, California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. The median annual salary for PAs working in California or Texas is $117,000.

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Physician Assistant Programs in the U.S.

California State University Monterey Bay
To be eligible to apply at CSUMB for their physician assistant program students must meet California State University Graduate Admission Requirements. GRE scores do not need to be submitted to apply. PA programs at this university are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Stanford University
The Master of Science in PA program at Stanford University is a 30-month program involving coursework and clinical practice. This program has been accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

Quinnipiac University (Hamden, CT)
The physician assistant program at Quinnipiac University is a 27-month program that has been ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the #1 PA program in Connecticut and the #15 PA program in the United States. It is accredited by the ARC-PA.

Colorado Mesa University
Students can expect to spend 27 months completing the PA program at Colorado Mesa University. Afterward, they are eligible to take the NCCPA and apply for their PA license through their state’s Board of Medical Examiners. Accreditation of the program has been granted by ARC-PA.

Florida Gulf Coast University
FGCU’s physician assistant program includes 15 months of on-campus, classroom instruction involving pharmacology, anatomy and physiology, clinical medicine, clinical skills, and clinical integration. For 12 months, students are then placed in clinical rotations (primary care, women’s health, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and general surgery) under the supervision of medical doctors. This program is accredited by ARC-PA.

Students can find additional PA programs accredited by ARC-PA here, or you can check out our list of the 50 Best Physician Assistant Programs here.

FAQs About Physician Assistants

How many physician assistants are doctors allowed to supervise simultaneously?
State and federal laws prohibit a physician from supervising more than four physician assistant students at any one time.

What duties can a PA perform while under the supervision of a medical doctor?
The scope of practice afforded to PAs in training is limited by their supervising doctor. In other words, whatever the supervising physician specializes in practicing (dermatology, pediatrics, general practice) dictates what the PA is allowed to do. Before working with an MD, student PAs will sign a “Delegation of Services Agreement” developed by the physician. This agreement precisely defines the procedures an MD is delegating to a physician assistant in training.

Is there anything a PA in training is not allowed to do?
Yes. PAs cannot determine refractive conditions of the eye or fit patients with eyeglasses or contact lenses. They also cannot practice dental hygiene or dentistry-related work on patients. However, a PA is permitted to perform routine vision screenings that test for visual acuity or color blindness.

Do supervising physicians have to be on-site with the PA while they are seeing patients?
No. Although they do not have to be on-site with PAs, supervising physicians must always remain available via electronic communication or other means. Before administering treatment or prescribing medications, PAs in training must consult with the supervising physician. 

How does a licensed physician assistant become a medical doctor?
A licensed physician assistant who wants to practice as an MD must finish the same four-year doctoral program that a medical or osteopathic student must complete. In addition, PAs need to complete a residency program focused on their chosen medical specialty. Accelerated MD programs are available from many universities that allow PAs to earn their medical degree in less than four years.

Interested? Learn More About Becoming a Physician Assistant

As one of the most in-demand healthcare positions, physician assistants are almost guaranteed immediate job offerings in all geographical locations within the U.S. We can help you start your exciting journey towards working a fulfilling career as a physician assistant. Just contact us today for answers to your questions about earning your physician assistant degree.

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