What is a PA?

What is a PA?

A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who is nationally certified and state-licensed to practice medicine. All PAs are graduates of an accredited PA educational program. PAs are licensed to practice and authorized to prescribe medication in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and all U.S. territories with the exception of Puerto Rico. They practice medicine in all settings and specialties.

In light of a projected physician shortage—estimated at 90,000 by 2020, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges—America's more than 95,000 PAs have the training, flexibility and agility to respond immediately to the demands placed on the US healthcare system.

What can PAs do?

PAs’ responsibilities depend on state laws, practice setting, their experience and the scope of practice of the physicians on their healthcare team.

PAs obtain medical histories conduct physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medication (PDF), order and interpret lab tests, perform procedures, assist in surgery, provide patient education and counseling and make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes. Yet this is not a comprehensive list of how PAs practice by any means.

How are PAs educated and trained?

The PA educational program (PDF) is modeled on the medical school curriculum, a combination of classroom and clinical instruction. The PA course of study is rigorous and intense. The average length of a PA education program is 26 months (3 academic years).

Admission to PA school is highly competitive. Applicants to PA programs must complete at least two years of college courses in basic science and behavioral science as prerequisites to PA school, analogous to premedical studies required of medical students. The majority of PA programs have the following prerequisites: chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and biology. Additionally, most PA programs require or prefer that applicants have prior healthcare experience.

PA education includes instruction in core sciences: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, pathophysiology, microbiology, clinical laboratory science, behavioral science and medical ethics.

PAs also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, physician offices and acute or long-term care facilities. Rotations include family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, general surgery, emergency medicine, geriatrics and psychiatry.

Graduates of accredited PA programs are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. PA graduates who pass the PANCE and maintain certification may use the title Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C.

In order to maintain national certification, a PA must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years and take a recertification exam every 10 years.

There are currently 187 accredited PA programs in the United States. The vast majority award master’s degrees. PA education programs are represented by the Physician Assistant Education Association and accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

If there’s a PA in my practice group, can I request to be seen by the PA?

By design, physicians and PAs work together as a team (PDF). If there is a PA in your group practice, you can certainly request to be seen by him or her. PAs deliver high-quality care, and research shows that patients are just as satisfied with PA-provided care as they are with physician care.