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What Is a Physician Assistant?

physician's assistant

For those interested in a career in the medical field, a number of potential job paths exist, from nursing to studying to become a doctor. However, one of the fastest-growing positions in the medical industry is that of physician assistant.

Physician assistants are licensed and certified health professionals who work alongside supervising physicians, bringing a broad base of knowledge, training, and skill to patient care. Some of the services physician assistants provide include:

  • Performing physical exams
  • Taking medical histories
  • Diagnosing illness
  • Treating illness
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Advising on preventive health care
  • Assisting in surgery
  • Prescribing medications

An estimated 84,000 certified physician assistants practice in medical and surgical specialties around the United States, providing care for patients and support for physicians. Physician assistants earn between $70,000 and $90,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for physician assistants.

What is a physician assistant? What do they do?

First, do not confuse a physician assistant with a medical assistant. Where medical assistants might perform some clinical work and clerical jobs, physician assistants work directly with physicians and surgeons. A physician assistant (PA) might treat minor injuries, work in diagnostics, provide therapy, or prescribe medication for patients.

In addition, physician assistants can work semi-autonomously. For instance, while they have to be supervised by a physician, a PA might be a principle care provider in a number of settings where the primary physician is present only a few days each week.

If you are wondering what is a physician assistant, part of determining if this is a good career choice for you requires that you have a good understanding of the various roles PAs serve and where they can work. You will find physician assistants working in a range of capacities in various medical institutions. For example, some PAs work with surgeons in the operating room at the hospital. Others work in private practices or in nursing homes.

Primary care is one of the most common medical areas in which a physician assistant might work, though emergency medicine and geriatrics are growing fields. In addition, a physician assistant might also work in orthopedics, thoracic surgery, general surgery, or pediatrics.

What is a physician assistant work schedule like?

If you are considering a career as a PA, you’ll be interested to learn more about what your potential work schedule will be like. Physician assistants can work almost any hours. Your specific schedule will depend on the needs of the physician or team that you are assisting. However, you should be prepared to work nights and weekends, as well as early mornings. Many PAs are also on call, serving when the physician needs their assistance the most.

If you are interested in becoming a physician assistant, you will need to complete an accredited two-year program in your state and pass your state’s licensing examination. Physician assistants must be licensed, certified, or registered in the state in which they practice. Certification is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

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References and resources

What is a physician assistant? Find out more at MEDEX.

The Department of Consumer Affairs offers more information about physician assistant work.

Duke University School of Medicine offers a popular physician assistant program.