What Is a Physician Assistant?

Salary, Job Duties, and Requirements

Physician assistant or doctor talking to patient in office
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A physician assistant is a member of a medical team that includes doctors, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare professionals. Commonly called a PA, he or she provides primary medical services. These services include performing examinations, ordering tests, diagnosing injuries and illnesses, administering treatment, prescribing medicine, and monitoring progress. A physician assistant may be named by their medical specialty.

For example, a family practice, general surgery, or orthopedic physician assistant.

Sometimes a PA is incorrectly called a physician's assistant, implying that they assist a doctor, instead of being a primary care provider. On the contrary, a PA provides primary care to patients. While a licensed physician must supervise a PA, he or she does not have to be on the premises of the medical facility while the PA is working on a patient. 

Quick Facts

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) physician assistants earn a median annual salary of $104,860 as of May 2017, and there were 106,200 people employed in this occupation.
  • Most PAs work in doctors' offices and hospitals.
  • Jobs are usually full-time positions, but about 20 percent of PAs have part-time positions.
  • The BLS classified this career as a "Bright Outlook" occupation because of its excellent job outlook. The agency expects employment to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2024.

    Roles and Responsibilities

    Before you decide whether this career is right for you, it is important to learn what your job duties would be. Most physician assistants are required to do the following:

    • Perform comprehensive and problem-focused history and physical exams
    • Collaborate with the other members of the patient's healthcare team in order to provide an appropriate plan of care
    • Discriminate between abnormal and normal patient findings to recognize early stages of physical, emotional, and/or mental problems
    • Document and communicate relevant patient information comprehensively and in a timely manner
    • Counsel and educate patients regarding health maintenance and disease prevention

    How to Become a Physician Assistant

    If you want to become a physician assistant, you will have to earn a master's degree from a PA training program that has received accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). This usually takes two years.

    Entrance requirements for PA training programs vary, but those who get admitted usually have a four-year college degree in science and experience working in a health-related job. In addition to coursework in pathology, anatomy, diagnosis, and medical ethics, you'll also participate in supervised clinical training in one or more areas of medicine.

    All 50 states and the District of Columbia require PAs to have a professional license. You'll have to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) which the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers.

    Your certification must be renewed every 10 years. To qualify for recertification, you'll have to complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years. The NCCPA maintains a list of licensing boards pertaining to each state.

    Skills You'll Need to Succeed as a PA

    Among the basic ​soft skills that you'll need to succeed are the following:

    Compassion

    A PA must show compassion toward their patients and families who may be in distress.

    Active Listening

    The ability to understand what your patients are telling you will allow you to respond appropriately.

    Verbal Communication

    You must be able to explain procedures and treatment to patients and caregivers.

    Problem Solving and Critical Thinking

    When treating a patient, you will first have to identify the patient's illness or injury and come up with a treatment plan.

    The ability to think critically will allow you to evaluate all possible treatments before choosing the one that will have the best outcome.

    Physician Assistant Versus Medical Assistant

    A physician assistant is a primary care provider who diagnoses illnesses and injuries before treating them. A medical assistant may perform clinical tasks such as taking vital signs or drawing blood. He or she may even administer medications under a physician's direct supervision, but unlike a PA, never provides primary care independently.

    Medical assistants are not required to receive any formal training or be licensed. They need a high school or equivalency diploma. Employers often provide on-the-job training, although some people who work in this occupation complete a one to a two-year formal training program.

    What Employers Will Expect

    When job hunting, employers will be looking for the following capabilities:

    • Must be able to function independently
    • Must be dependable, hardworking, willing to work long hours, and eager to learn
    • Must have the ability to use tact and diplomacy to effectively handle a broad range of sensitive personal situations among diverse populations
    • Ability to respond appropriately to conflicts and problems
    • Demonstrated ability to maintain a high degree of confidentiality
    • Ability to handle difficult patients

    Is This Occupation a Good Fit for You?

    If you think this profession is something you would enjoy, you should take the Holland Code: ISR (Investigative, Social, Realistic) and the  MBTI Personality Types: ISFP tests to see if you have the right personality for the job.

    Related Occupations

    If you're interested in the medical profession but want a different kind of job, perhaps one of the following careers is a better fir for you.

     DescriptionMedian Annual Wage (2017)Minimum Required Education/Training
    RNTreats, supports, and advises patients and their families$70,000Bachelor's, Associate, or Diploma in Nursing
    Advanced Practice RNProvides primary specialty medical care, working under the titles nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist$110,930 Master's Degree from Accredited Advanced Practice RN Program
    DoctorDiagnoses diseases and injuries, and treats patients$208,000+ (varies by specialty)MD or DO Degree (4 years) + 3 to 7 Year Residency