The PA Profession

PAs are health care “professionals who practice medicine on healthcare teams with physicians and other providers.”(AAPA, 2014) PAs provide a wide range of medical and surgical services in a variety of health care settings including hospitals, offices, community health centers, emergency rooms and surgical ORs. Offering many health related services historically provided by physicians, the profession has been integrated into the US healthcare infrastructure over the past four and one-half 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.
  • Care for critically ill and injured patients, and perform a variety of medical 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 his career.

A Growing Profession

US News Careers has the physician assistant career ranked at #3 on their list of healthcare careers. The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projected upwards of a 38% increase in the number of PA jobs between 2012 and 2022, estimating that more than 33,300 physician assistants will be added to the workforce. You may also view 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 and highly-valued members of the healthcare team. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  (ACA) 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 PAs maintain their own malpractice insurance while others 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, and life-long learning and leadership required of physician assistants.