Physician Assistant Studies as a Career

As a physician assistant (PA), you are trained in the medical school model and licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. PAs employed by the federal government are credentialed rather than licensed. Your comprehensive responsibilities include conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses, ordering and interpreting tests, counseling on preventive healthcare, assisting in surgery, and writing prescriptions. As part of the physician-PA relationship, physician assistants exercise autonomy in medical decision making and provide a broad range of diagnostic and therapeutic services. Education, research, and administrative duties may also be incorporated into PA practice.

Your education as a physician assistant closely complements that of allopathic and osteopathic physician training. As a PA student, you typically share classes, facilities, and clinical rotations with medical students. After graduation, you'll take a national certifying examination, continue your medical education on a regular basis, and sit for recertification every six years.

Before you enter a PA program, you should complete at least two years of college courses in basic science and behavioral science. Experience in healthcare, a desire to study and work hard, and an interest in being of service to your community are also desired traits. Most of your peers will have earned a bachelor's degree and entered a professional PA program with nearly three years of health care experience. Often EMTs, nurses, and paramedics apply to PA programs.

Physician assistant educational programs generally consist of classroom and laboratory instruction in basic medical and behavioral sciences (anatomy, pharmacology, physiology clinical medicine, physical diagnosis, biochemistry, microbiology, psychology, medical ethics), followed by clerkships or clinical rotations in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, geriatric medicine, and psychiatry. PA education is competency based, meaning you will demonstrate proficiency in various areas of medical knowledge and meet behavioral and clinical learning objectives in order to succeed.

Physician assistants are found in all areas of medicine. You may practice in areas of primary care, including family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, geriatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, as well as surgery and surgical specialties. The scope of your responsibilities as a PA corresponds to that of your supervising physician's practice. You'll see the same types of patients as the physician, who will take the more complicated cases and those which require more than routine care. As part of your PA training, you are taught when to refer cases to the physician.

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA):

If you want to be the type of healthcare professional who works with a team to extend patient access to medical care; someone who gets to know your patients as people and wants to be involved in your community; someone who is compassionate, has a healing touch, and communicates well; and someone who enjoys knowing a diverse range of people from different backgrounds, a career as a physician assistant may be just right for you.

Sources: American Academy of Physician Assistants;; New York Times, August 16, 2008; Physician Assistant Education Association