What is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a healthcare professional who assesses, diagnoses, and treats medical illnesses and injuries.

However, physician assistants perform these duties under a physician’s or surgeon’s supervision.

These healthcare professionals often work with various medical professionals to ensure patients receive adequate care.

It includes medical technicians, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, surgeons, and other health experts.

In addition, they work in diverse healthcare settings, including clinics, physician offices, hospitals, and urgent care centers.

What Do Physician Assistants Do?

Physician assistants are responsible for various medical tasks and patient treatment programs.

These healthcare specialists concentrate on preventing and treating patient diseases, illnesses, and injuries.

As a result, they perform different healthcare tasks and responsibilities to prevent, identify and treat patient ailments.

It includes performing physical exams, taking blood/urine samples, interviewing patients, and diagnosing and treating injuries and illnesses.

They may also prescribe medication to help patients recover or manage their conditions, among other medical duties.

Physician assistants educate patients about their medical condition and provide feedback and advice.

The data they collect enables them to help patients prevent illnesses and improve their overall health and specific ailment.

Sometimes a physician or surgeon supervises physician assistants to provide oversight and guidance.

However, they can perform many top-level tasks alone.

For instance, some physician assistants treat patients without seeing a physician or surgeon.

Physician assistants may also assess a patient’s condition, administer treatments and even prescribe medications.

Here is a short list of duties physician assistants perform daily.

Physician Assistant Responsibilities:

  • Interview and counsel patients on their medical condition
  • Provide preventative care advice and health information
  • Perform medical examinations and health screenings
  • Assist with surgical procedures
  • Diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries
  • Order and interpret lab tests
  • Record patient vital signs
  • Handle patient test samples
  • Prescribe medications and treatment plans
  • Research, record, collect, and gather healthcare data

Mobility and diversity are essential factors for those who operate as successful physician assistants.

A broad scope of medical duties and capabilities makes them indispensable assets in the healthcare field.

Physician assistants spend essential hands-on time directly with their patients.

It enables PAs to educate patients about improving their self-care and develop long-lasting patient-PA relationships.

It also allows them to provide a more personalized experience for their patients.

Physician assistants can handle most (if not all) of a patient’s direct medical care, except for highly complex diseases.

However, there has been a challenging debate on PAs opening businesses or working as primary healthcare providers.

Central mid-level opportunities for these types of care depend mainly on the state and healthcare policies and guidelines.

As healthcare continues to undergo reforms, more mid-level positions are needed to fill the gap in primary care.

As a result, nurse practitioners and physician assistants receive additional training and education to provide primary care.

Eventually, these healthcare specialists may open independent businesses and help more patients needing medical care.

Some states already enable nurse practitioners to act as independent, primary healthcare providers for their patients.

Where Do Physician Assistants Work?

Physician assistants work in diverse medical settings providing care to patients with illnesses, injuries, and other conditions.

It includes hospitals, medical offices, urgent care centers, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and community health centers.

They also operate in colleges, universities, school districts, correctional facilities, and government health/medical institutions.

Occupational Settings:

  • Hospitals
  • Medical offices
  • Urgent care centers
  • Nursing homes
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Community health centers
  • Colleges/universities
  • School districts
  • Correctional facilities
  • Government institutions

The duties and responsibilities of physician assistants vary depending on their occupational setting and discipline.

For instance, PAs may work in cardiology, emergency medicine, neurosurgery, plastic surgery, or psychiatry.

Each discipline has specific skills physician assistants must master to provide exceptional patient care.

Physician Assistant Specializations:

  • Anesthesia
  • Cardiology
  • Emergency medicine
  • Endocrinology
  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Neurosurgery
  • Orthopedics
  • Pain management
  • Pediatrics
  • Plastic surgery
  • Psychiatry
  • Radiology

And numerous other specializations.

As discussed later in the article, physician assistants can move into different disciplines without returning to medical school.

It enables them to quickly and easily change career paths and fields more effectively than physicians.

However, a physician assistant works under the oversight of a physician and cannot perform specific complex duties. 

Understanding Patient Care

A great physician assistant provides more than adequate medical care and education to patients requiring medical treatment.

These healthcare professionals can easily listen to their patient’s needs and explain complex terminology and treatments.

Physician assistants must be extremely patient and caring towards patients with difficulty managing their health.

They also understand the patient’s perspective, especially when treating children, elderly patients, or those with mental disorders.

PAs who enjoy and love their work will be exponentially happier, and their enjoyment/satisfaction will reflect their work.

Becoming a physician assistant for financial, social, academic, or other non-patient-focused reasons makes work less pleasurable.

It also makes completing complex duties feel tedious, repetitious, and unsatisfying.

As a result, physician assistants must focus on providing essential care and ensuring patients receive the best treatment. 

Being a PA is a gratifying career. However, it has its challenges, responsibilities, and expectations.

Therefore, PAs must ensure their interests align with their profession to get the most sanctification out of their work.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

The path to becoming a physician assistant is reasonably straightforward and precise.

However, it requires students to invest time, education, resources, and money significantly in their education and training.

The following section discusses the education, work experience, and training necessary to become a physician assistant.

1. Obtain a Diploma or GED

The first step to becoming a physician assistant is to obtain a Diploma, GED, or equivalent.

Most colleges and universities require students to complete high school coursework before allowing them to join.

College students must complete numerous prerequisites and obtain a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college.

2. Complete the Required PA School Prerequisites

To earn a bachelor’s degree and join a PA program, students who enter college must complete numerous prerequisite courses.

It includes courses like anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, biology and microbiology, chemistry, and organic chemistry.

Students must also complete English composition, genetics, medical terminology, psychology, and statistics.

These PA prerequisite courses ensure students understand the academic fundamentals required to succeed in the PA program.

PA Prerequisites Typically Include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry with lab
  • Organic chemistry
  • English composition
  • Genetics
  • Medical Terminology
  • Psychology
  • Social/behavioral sciences
  • Statistics

The exact prerequisite requirements may vary depending on the medical school.

As a result, its beneficial for students to consult a guidance counselor to determine which prerequisite courses to complete

3. Earn a Bachelorette Degree

There are numerous college degrees students can pursue in the undergraduate program to qualify for medical school.

Read “what degree(s) do you need to become a PA?” for more information.

That said, a health science degree is beneficial to help prepare students for a PA program.

Throughout college, it’s essential to maintain a high GPA, as medical school admission can be very competitive.

Obtaining a GRE in the 40-50ths percentile is also recommended when taking the exam.

Nevertheless, numerous medical schools are moving to a PA-CAT exam to qualify students for program admission.

4. Gain Experience

While earning a bachelor’s degree or after obtaining one, students should gain work experience in a healthcare setting.

Many PA programs require 1,000 – 4,000 hours of work experience and an undergraduate degree before students can attend.

It may include working as a medical assistant, registered nurse, EMT, or paramedic for several years to gain work experience.

In any of these cases, aspiring students must obtain a bachelor’s degree before participating in a physician assistant program.

For instance,  medical assistants and registered nurses need a bachelor’s degree and job experience to qualify for the program.

It’s recommended that aspiring PA students determine the PA program’s work experience requirements in advance.

5. Complete a Post Graduate PA Program

Once eligible for the program, students spend approximately 2-3 years preparing to become physician assistants.

The first years of education typically center around didactics, which last roughly 6-8 hours per day.

It includes anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, and medical law and ethics courses.

PA students also learn other essential lessons related to their profession.

The second year of medical school focuses on the clinical aspects of care.

During this time, PA students work alongside a healthcare/medical team, gaining valuable hands-on training and experience.

The clinical time needed to pass the program may vary by school.

However, many PA schools suggest a minimum of 2,000 clinical training as part of their curriculum.

6. Obtain Certification

Lastly, students who finish the PA program must pass a physician assistant national certifying exam.

This exam tests their field knowledge and enables them to become certified and work as physician assistants.

To continue working as a physician assistant, PAs must renew and maintain their certification as long as they work.

Physician assistants interested in advancing their careers may continue their education and acquire further certifications.

It enables them to specialize in nutrition, ambulatory care, or specialized technician positions.

Career Opportunities

There are numerous opportunities for physician assistants who want to specialize in different domains.

For instance, physician assistants can quickly and easily change career fields compared to physicians.

Physicians specializing in a particular discipline require numerous years of education and training.

Those who wish to change careers must pursue additional education, residency, and board certification.

Compartabely, physician assistants can move into different specializations without requiring years of schooling.

Some duties can be learned with on-hand training and certification, enabling them to move more quickly and effectively.

A PA can go from orthopedic surgery to neurosurgery to plastic surgery without returning to medical school.

On the other hand, a physician must return to school to move from orthopedic surgery to neurosurgery.

This is partly because physicians perform various surgical procedures and treatments that are particular to their domain.

These experts act as the leading medical professionals and must finalize/decide on patient diagnoses and treatments.

Physician assistants help physicians complete various procedures and treatments.

However, they do not make the final decision and cannot perform surgical procedures themselves.

As a result, they can traverse various specializations and healthcare domains with less required training.

Physician assistants benefit from learning new skills, allowing them to pursue different interests and careers more quickly.

However, PAs will always remain the first assistant in their careers because they’re not trained to operate as physicians.

They perform many of the same duties and responsibilities as physicians, but only under a physician’s supervision.

Career Limitations

While physician assistants can change fields more easily than physicians, they always stay first assists.

As a result, physician assistants remain under the supervision of a physician regardless of where they specialize.

Physician assistants can help surgeons retract and suture patients in surgical departments.

They may also insert arterials and central lines and perform dialysis line insertions and intubations unassisted.

Performing these tasks enables PAs to help patients and assist physicians with challenging tasks.

Nevertheless, they cannot complete more comprehensive treatments independently or perform surgical procedures.

PAs provide aid to physicians to ease their work and enable them to treat patients with more complex and demanding needs.

However, they have much less autonomy when managing complex medical conditions in the operating room.

PAs also have more restrictions regarding acting as primary care providers or operating independent clinics.

Each state implements regulations and limitations restricting PAs from performing specific physician duties unassisted. 

As a result, a physician assistant’s scope of practice is limited regardless of where they specialize.

PAs may treat and diagnose patients, perform procedures, conduct medical history reviews, and order and interpret labs.

However, the physician providing oversight to the PA makes the final decision regarding patient matters.

A physician may disagree with a physician assistant’s diagnosis or treatment and change course at any time.

Benefits of Being a Physician Assistant

There are numerous benefits of being a physician assistant compared to being a physician.

For instance, PAs work under a physician’s supervision and do not need to manage multiple complex tasks or procedures.

As a result, they don’t need to take work home, worry about overnight phone calls, or keep track of their patients.

Physician assistants also have less malpractice exposure and risks related to medical procedure complications.

Physicians make the final decision regarding diagnosis and treatment, alleviating PAs from stress related to these duties.

Besides lower stress levels and responsibilities, physician assistants typically have more reliable and stable work hours.

While physicians may work a surplus of overtime, PAs often complete their workweek after 40 hours.

Working fewer hours and not taking work home means physician assistants have a more satisfactory work-life balance.

Finally, physician assistants can quickly change fields, allowing them to explore various disciplines.

They don’t need to return to medical school for several years to specialize in a different field.

The Importance of Physician Assistants in Healthcare

Physician assistants are an essential part of the healthcare system.

These experts allow physicians, surgeons, and other professionals to focus on managing high-level tasks more effectively.

Multiple physician assistants sometimes manage various aspects of a physician’s office or healthcare center.

It enables them to offset large portions of a physician’s workload, allowing the office to run efficiently.

Physician assistants receive an extraordinary amount of education, training, and knowledge.

As a result, they perform many standard medical tasks without a physician’s direct supervision.

These specialists also manage many aspects of patient care, from medical history assessment to diagnosis and treatments.

It gives each patient the time and attention they need to obtain proper medical care.

Without physician assistants, many healthcare professionals may find themselves overwhelmed and understaffed.

Their absence would lead to increased errors, higher stress levels, and long patient wait times for patients.

It would also lead to less overall satisfaction for patients and the healthcare professionals that serve them.