What Does a Physician Assistant or Associate (PA) Do?

Physician assistants (PAs)—sometimes referred to as physician associates—are highly trained medical professionals who hold advanced degrees and provide direct patient care. PAs can work in a wide variety of roles, from primary to specialty care, and provide various services. As part of the allied health professions, PAs are a crucial component of today’s team-based approach to care. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the need for physician associates will grow 31 percent by 2030, a rate nearly four times the national average for all professions. It’s also a high-paid role: the median annual wages of physician associates was over $121,000 in 2021. And with an increasing shortage of healthcare professionals exacerbated further by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, PAs are more important than ever.

Read on to learn more about what physician associates do, where they work, and how they’re trained.

Where Physician Assistants / Associates Work

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), there are over 150,000 PAs who practice in every medical setting in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Their work environments can include: 

  • Hospitals
  • University Clinics
  • Community Health Centers
  • Nursing Homes
  • Correctional Institutions
  • Specialty Clinics

Typical Responsibilities of Physician Assistants / Associates

PAs are a vital part of the modern, team-based approach to care delivery. They will often coordinate with physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, and other healthcare workers as part of a team. The extent to which a PA may practice autonomously versus under supervision is determined by the regulations of the state in which they practice.

The exact work of a PA will vary based on their work setting and specialization; PAs working in surgical clinics may close incisions, while PAs in pediatric clinics may immunize children. However, some typical responsibilities amongst most PAs include:

  • Conducting physical exams
  • Diagnosing and treating illness
  • Prescribing medications
  • Ordering and interpreting tests
  • Taking medical histories
  • Counseling patients and families

Educational Pathways for Physician Assistants / Associates

After graduating from high school, aspiring PAs must complete a bachelor’s degree. While there is no strict requirement for a PA’s undergraduate major, it is important that the coursework include heavy exposure to the basic and behavioral sciences, including anatomy, biology, chemistry, and physiology.

After completing their bachelor’s degree, aspiring PAs must accrue hands-on healthcare experience, generally at least three years’ worth. This may involve working as an EMT, a hospital scribe, a paramedic, or a lab assistant. Not only does it help one boost their practical skill set, but it’s also a requirement for PA schools. 

All PAs need a master’s degree (MPAS, MHS, or MMSc) from a PA school accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Modeled on the curricula of medical schools, these master’s programs are typically three years in length and include both didactic coursework and more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations in a variety of disciplines.

While it’s not a requirement to practice, some PAs pursue residencies and fellowships after completing their master’s degrees. These are typically one- to two-year programs that facilitate a smooth transition from education to practice, with equal parts didactic learning and hands-on clinical experiences. They can also be a valuable stepping stone for PAs who wish to specialize further.

Specializations for Physician Assistants / Associates

Many PAs work as generalists in primary care settings, but they can choose to specialize in a wide range of areas. Some common specializations for PAs include:

  • Anesthesia
  • Cardiology
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Neurology
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN)
  • Radiology
  • Pediatrics
  • Surgical Care

Most specializations require PAs to pursue extra training, like the kind offered in fellowships and residencies. Fellowships and residencies are becoming increasingly common, but they remain equally distributed geographically; currently, PAs may need to relocate to obtain a fellowship or residency in their specialty area. In addition to fellowships and residencies, PAs who wish to specialize may also pursue continuing education credits, informal mentorships, and on-the-job training.

Certification and Licensure for Physician Assistants / Associates

PAs will need to be certified in order to practice. To achieve certification, candidates will need to pass a 300-question exam, the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). 

Once PAs achieve certification, they’ll need to renew it every two years by completing 100 hours of continuing education; after ten years, they’ll need to take a recertification exam.

PAs will also need to be licensed by the state where they practice. Statutory and regulatory requirements for both initial licensure and licensure renewal vary from state to state, but more detailed information can be found on the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) website or our guide to becoming a physician assistant or associate.

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog

Writer

Matt is a writer and researcher from Southern California. He’s been living abroad since 2016. Long spells in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America have made the global mindset a core tenet of his perspective. From conceptual art in Los Angeles, to NGO work on the front lines of Eastern Ukraine, to counterculture protests in the Southern Caucasus, Matt’s writing subjects are all over the map, and so is he.

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