Physician Assistant Profession

The physician assistant (PA) is a health care “professional who practices medicine with the supervision of a licensed physician.”(AAPA, 2013) Whether licensed or credentialed by a state, PAs provide a wide range of medical and surgical services in a variety of health care settings. Offering many health related services historically provided by physicians, the profession has been integrated into the US healthcare infrastructure over the past four decades.  Within the last decade or so, the physician assistant concept has been adopted by many countries around the world. As a part of their many roles in medicine, physician assistants:

  • gather patient histories and perform physical exams,
  • order laboratory tests and diagnose illnesses,
  • develop treatment plans and prescribe medications,
  • counsel and educate patients on issues of wellness and disease,
  • assist in surgery (in surgical settings),
  • care for critically ill and injured patients, and perform a variety of procedures.

PAs are distinguished from other health care professionals by their intensive generalist medical education, their breadth of clinical knowledge and by the extent to which they are given decision-making authority regarding patient care, diagnosis and treatment.  The generalist training and the unique MD-PA relationship form the foundation for the physician assistants’ ability to practice in more than one specialty over the course of their career.

A Growing Profession

CNN Money ranked the physician assistant career at #16 on their list of 100 based on data related to job prospects and salary ranges.   Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projected a more than 30% increase in the number of PA jobs between 2010 and 2020, estimating that more than 24,000 physician assistants will be added to the workforce. Please see the Smart Money magazine article about physician assistants in surgery.

While an individual physician assistant’s scope of practice and autonomy varies by setting and specialty, PAs are recognized as cost-effective, highly-valued members of the healthcare team.  The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act recognizes those from the profession as important providers of medical care in the US and has allocated increased funding for primary care PA educational programs.

Licensure and Certification

All PAs must be licensed by the state in which they practice. This is achieved through graduating from a nationally accredited (ARC-PA) educational program and passing the national certification exam (NCCPA). Some physician assistants maintain their own malpractice insurance while PAs that work in a group may be covered under the medical group policy.

The Competencies of the Physician Assistant Profession

The National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), in conjunction with the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) and the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) have formulated the competencies of a physician assistant in a document entitled Competencies of the Physician Assistant Profession.  This document outlines the aptitude for clinical practice, evidence-based reasoning, life-long learning and leadership required of physician assistants.