What Is a Physician Assistant?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 08, 2023
3 min read

A physician assistant (PA) is a health care professional who works with doctors and gives medical treatment. You can find physician’s assistants in virtually all primary care and specialty medical fields. 

A PA’s duties vary, depending on the supervising doctor. State laws also play a role in the kind of care that you may get from a physician’s assistant.  

Some rural areas of the United States use PAs to provide care for entire communities. As technology advances, the role may also become more vital to an aging population. For these reasons, demand for physician assistants is steadily increasing.

A physician assistant’s role typically includes things like:

  • Making rounds (checking on patients)
  • Doing patient exams
  • Helping doctors in surgery
  • Diagnosing illnesses
  • Writing prescriptions
  • Creating and managing patient treatment plans
  • Offering advice to patients on preventive care and best health practices

Although PAs work alongside a supervising doctor, that doesn’t mean they work under the doctor’s direct supervision. Instead, they are in partnership with the doctor. They are independent clinicians within the scope of state law. 

Most state laws require physicians to have agreements with PAs to define what they can do. The American Academy of PAs put in place a policy in 2017 that calls for an end to such agreements.  

PAs work in medical settings including:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Medical offices
  • Community health centers
  • Retail clinics
  • Workplace clinics
  • Schools
  • Correctional institutions

PAs also work with government agencies like Veterans Affairs (VA) and in branches of the military. 

Physician assistants vs. nurse practitioners

Many people think physician assistants and nurse practitioners are the same. Although they do similar things, they have different education and training.

A nurse practitioner studies advanced nursing. Their training and practice focus on a patient-centered model.

PAs receive training similar to that of a medical student and can dive in to different specializations, including:

A career as a physician assistant starts with a bachelor’s degree from an accredited (approved) college or university with coursework focused on science. Some schools offer a pre-PA degree. From there, students must complete a physician’s assistant program that has accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). 

Most physician assistant programs take about 2 years. Students take classes while getting at least 2,000 clinical rotation hours. They then receive a master’s degree in PA studies.

PAs must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which is overseen and administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Afterward, they’re free to practice with physician assistant certified (PA-C) credentials.

A physician assistant must take 100 continuing education credit hours every 2 years to keep the certification. They must also take a recertification exam every 10 years.

Physician assistants focus on patient education, preventive care, and managing chronic (long-lasting) health issues. A PA’s training means they can treat many kinds of health problems. 

It may be easier to schedule an appointment with a physician assistant than with a doctor.

PAs may also treat a patient for one issue and notice a problem in another area that requires further attention and a referral to a doctor.