What is a Physician Assistant?

Physician Asistants

What Is a Physician Assistant?


If you’re looking for a ripe field in medicine, why not consider being a PA or Physician Assistant? A prominent personality when it comes to health care and maintenance, a Physician Assistant has many similarities and few differences with a medical doctor and a nurse.


Introducing the Physician Assistant

This particular position is akin to nurse practitioners and medical doctors in that they are all considered to be primary care providers. On a legal basis, they are nationally certified and licensed by the state to practice medicine. They function mainly as part of a team and are capable of diagnosing health issues and prescribing medications to their patients.


Educational Prerequisites to Be a PA

The educational background needed for this career is closely related to that of Medical Doctors and Nurse Practitioners. In fact, the prerequisite needed for this course is the same as with MDs and NPs.  Although such prerequisites may vary from one school to another, here are the typically requirements before you can enroll for a PA course:


  • Biology with laboratory
  • General Chemistry with laboratory
  • Human Anatomy with laboratory
  • Human Physiology with laboratory
  • General Microbiology with laboratory
  • Non Science Courses which includes Statistics and English Composition


Education Requirements to Be a PA

Once all the prerequisites have been met, students will go through 3 years of classes comprised of in-room learning and 2,000 hours worth of clinical rotation. The technical lessons will include an even more in-depth study of basic sciences, clinical medicine, and behavioral science. The 2,000 hours clinical rotation will involve the following aspects of medicine:


  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • General surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Emergency medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Obstetrics and gynecology


After graduating, PAs are required to take a standardized test before they can practice. First the PA must pass the PA National Certifying Exam or PANCE which is under the control of the National Commission on Certification of PAs. Afterwards, they must get a license under the state they will be practicing. Studying for your boards? Check out our PANCE Review Course!


Note that recertification is necessary every 10 years to guarantee the quality of practitioners in the profession. This is done through the PANRE Exam. Check out NPAE’s PANRE Review Course! There’s also a continuing medical education comprising of 100 hours performed every 2 years.


Roles and Responsibilities of a PA

What does a PA do? The daily duties of someone in this position vary, depending on the exact nature of their job in the hospital or clinic. For the most part however, professionals are allowed to:


  • Take medical history
  • Conduct physical exams
  • Diagnose illnesses
  • Provide treatment
  • Prescribe medications
  • Provide help on preventive care
  • Make rounds in hospitals and other medical institutions
  • Provide surgery assistance only. PAs are not allowed to operate.


It’s therefore remarkably easy to confuse a PA with an MD as they also make the rounds, perform patient checkups and issue prescriptions. As with doctors however, experience is an important aspect of this profession. PAs who have had more than 10 years of experience may be given wider roles and responsibilities within the limit of state laws.


Like Medical Doctors and Nurse Practitioners, PAs deal with people on a daily basis, therefore requiring them to be people-oriented. Not only should they be adept in medicine, but their social skills should also be of high caliber to deal with people in emergency situations.


Physician Assistant Working Environment

PAs often work as part of a group under the supervision of a doctor. Hence, they often confer with each other to help with different cases within the hospital. Of course, the hospital is just one of the places where Physician Assistants may work. Some are also employed in clinics, outpatient care centers, special care centers, the government, private sector, and educational institutions teaching their practice.


They often work full time, following the same erratic schedule of doctors. Of course, this depends largely on the employer. They may work shifts or be on call if necessary. Hence, the job can be quite demanding with frequent instances of night shift.


Physician Assistant vs. Medical Doctor

At the outset, it might seem like Assistants have no difference with Medical Doctors (MDs) in that they can diagnose and prescribe drugs. However, it is only doctors that may perform surgeries.


MDs also have more autonomy. While Assistants are capable of handling patients, they do so under the help and guidance of a doctor. Hence, while PAs can perform healthcare functions, it is usually under the approval and supervision of a medical doctor.


The difference of roles and responsibilities between the two stems from the difference in educational requirements. While PAs also go through rigorous tertiary education and hospital circulation, they don’t study as exhaustively or as extensively as doctors. Hence, a PA student may get his certification long before an MD student finalizes his residency.


Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

A Nurse Practitioner or NP occupies a higher position than a nurse. NPs have the capacity to also prescribe medications to their patients, putting them on a similar footing with a Physician Assistant. The main difference between the two however, is with regards to education. NPs usually have a more specified field of study while a PA takes on a more general aspect of the medical profession. NPs also need additional licensing in order to prescribe medications while this capacity is inherent in the Physician Assistant.


Career Prospects

All in all, PAs make up an important part of the medical profession triage. They’re highly valued in the employment industry with many hospitals hiring more PAs than doctors. Those who are looking for a reliable job in the medical field but do not want to go through the rigorous process of MD Education can opt for the less stringent, but equally valuable path of a Physician Assistant


Salary-wise, take home pay of people in this profession is $98,000 on average. Of course, this may vary from one state to another. Some PAs may take additional courses or clinical work if they want to become Medical Doctors. With very little difference in the field, it’s not unheard of for PAs to advance to MDs.



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