If you’ve ever broken a bone or had a minor illness for which you visited a hospital or clinic, you may have been treated by a physician assistant (PA) instead of a physician. What is a physician assistant, and what do they do?
Physician assistants are clinicians who treat illnesses and injuries in medical settings under the supervision of a doctor. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in the medical field but don’t want to undergo the years of education and training required to become a doctor or nurse, you may consider becoming a PA.
What Is a Physician Assistant?
Physician assistants, also known as physician associates or PAs, are licensed clinicians who can perform a wide range of medical tasks. They work in teams with doctors and other healthcare professionals in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, prisons, schools, community health facilities, military settings and nursing homes. They use their education in general medicine to deliver holistic patient care. For example, a physician assistant may see a patient for an illness related to obesity but spot a skin condition during the examination and treat that as well.1
A Physician Assistant’s Job
Physician assistants work in teams of healthcare professionals and may specialize in any area of medicine. They may close incisions during a surgery, help with post-operation recovery or provide vaccinations to children. Physician assistants may also act as primary care providers in clinics where the doctor is only present some of the time. They may also do the following:
- Review a patient’s medical history
- Prescribe medication
- Refill prescriptions
- Order tests, such as x-rays or blood tests
- Educate patients about illnesses
- Diagnose minor illnesses or injuries
- Administer treatments for minor illnesses or injuries
- Assess a patient’s progress
- Conduct research on potential treatments for injuries and illnesses
- Make house calls
- Visit nursing homes to care for patients2
Differences Among a Physician Assistant, a Doctor and a Nurse Practitioner
The job of a physician assistant may sound similar to that of other professions. If a PA can prescribe medicines and diagnose illnesses, what sets them apart from a doctor or nurse practitioner?
Responsibilities of a Doctor
Physician assistants work under the direct supervision of a doctor. This means that they have the training to do many of the same things as a doctor, but they don’t work alone. PAs do many of the same things doctors do, but they don’t have the same level of education that doctors have. They usually complete two years of training, whereas doctors usually complete four years of medical school, an internship and a residency. This difference in training is the reason why physician assistants must act under a doctor’s supervision.
Physician assistants are also more accessible than doctors. Whereas doctors usually have full workloads, often making it difficult for patients to schedule appointments with them, physician assistants usually have lighter workloads, making it easier for patients to schedule appointments with them. This means that PAs can usually dedicate more time and energy to each individual patient than doctors can.3
The Role of a Nurse Practitioner
PAs and nurse practitioners (NPs) are both medical professionals who can diagnose and treat medical concerns. The differences between the two usually lie in their job descriptions and educational requirements.
Physician assistants usually work alongside physicians and can diagnose and treat many medical concerns. They may even treat patients by performing minor surgeries or prescribing medicine. They must obtain a graduate education, followed by an accreditation and certification. They focus on evaluating, diagnosing and treating medical concerns.
Nurse practitioners may work alongside physicians, help them diagnose and treat medical concerns and prescribe medications. They are registered nurses who have completed additional graduate education and clinical training and hold a certification in a specialty area. They focus on providing basic treatment to improve patient health and wellness.4
How to Become a Physician Assistant
PAs start out by earning a bachelor’s degree in a healthcare field or another science-focused field. This degree usually requires two to four years of coursework.
Along the way, aspiring PAs are encouraged to work in a healthcare field to gain experience working with patients. This can include work as a nursing assistant, paramedic or emergency medical technician (EMT), among other roles.
After completing their bachelor’s degree and gaining some work experience, aspiring PAs enroll in a physician assistant degree program, which is usually a master’s degree program. Physician assistant master’s degree programs usually last two years and cover the following subjects:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Physical diagnosis
- Clinical medicine
- Emergency, family, internal and pediatric medicine
An aspiring PA may also serve in clinical rotations before getting a job as a PA. Physician assistants must be detail-oriented and emotionally stable, as they must often perform well under pressure. Patients’ family members may be worried about their loved ones, so PAs must remain calm, compassionate and understanding. They must also be able to communicate effectively about patient needs with patients themselves as well as doctors and other medical professionals. Because they are often responsible for diagnosing and treating illnesses, physician assistants should be able to identify problems and find effective solutions.2
You can take your first step toward becoming a physician assistant by pursuing a pre-physician assistant degree. Grand Canyon University is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Biology with an Emphasis in Pre-Physician Assistant degree program, which offers foundational courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, ethics and physical sciences. Click the Request Info button above to learn more about our medical studies and sciences degrees.
1 American Academy of PAs, What is a PA? in June 2022.
2 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, What Physicians Assistants Do in June 2022.
3 Bone & Joint Clinic of Baton Rouge, Bone & Joint Blog, What is the Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Doctor? in June 2022.
4 Tufts Medical Center Community Care and Tufts Medicine MelroseWakefield Hospital and Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Medford, What is the Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Nurse Practitioner? in June 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.