Physician assistant (PA) has become a popular program of study for graduate school students. Before you choose a physician assistant degree program, you should develop a more thorough understanding of what a physician assistant is. Although not qualified to use the title “doctor” or “physician,” a physician assistant practices medicine like doctors do. They receive advanced education and clinical training and often serve as a principal or primary care provider in any number of medical specialties.

A Practitioner of Medicine, But Not a Doctor

What exactly is a PA

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The first thing you should know about physician assistants is that, despite the word “physician” appearing in their job title, they aren’t medical doctors. They don’t have the necessary degree – a Doctor of Medicine (D.M.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) – to meet the requirements to officially be a medical doctor. They do, however, practice medicine, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Practicing medicine entails everything from conducting physicals exams of patients and ordering diagnostic tests to treating a patient’s medical conditions.

If you look at the five most important core tasks of a physician assistant – examine patients, formulate diagnoses, prescribe treatments, order diagnostic tests and interpret test results, according to O*NET – it can be hard to distinguish between a PA and a doctor. The primary difference is that PAs may need physician approval for the medications and therapies they prescribe. Other differences in job duties include assisting doctors with medical procedures in support roles, such as stitching incisions shut during a surgery.

Physician assistants are often confused with other healthcare roles, like nurse or medical assistant. Although there’s some overlap in job duties, particularly between PAs and nurse practitioners (a type of advanced practice registered nurse), PAs are approaching clinical care from a medical perspective, not a nursing perspective. The medical model emphasizes disease of the anatomical parts and physiological systems that make up the body. The nursing model, on the other hand, is generally more concerned with holistic or integrated care, otherwise described as the care of the whole patient.

Medical assistant and physician assistant may sound similar, but they’re two very different jobs. While physician assistants practice medicine like doctors do, medical assistants perform clerical and administrative tasks.

A Principal Healthcare Provider in Numerous Medical Specialties

Don’t let the term “assistant” fool you. Physician assistants don’t just help physicians – they work under a doctor’s supervision to provide direct care to patients themselves. Often, a PA acts as a principal healthcare provider, or primary care provider, for patients, according to the American Academy of PAs.

Although physician assistants work under supervision, they aren’t limited to practicing medicine only when a doctor is hovering directly over them. Instead, they may communicate directly with their supervising physician either face-to-face or via phone or electronic communication systems. The doctor is responsible for the patient, but the PA may share in that responsibility. The physician assistant may even be the first line of clinical assistance when a patient needs routine care or requires diagnosis and treatment of a medical condition.

Like doctors, physician assistants work in many different areas of specialty. Some of the specialties you may choose to work in as a PA include surgery, pediatrics, psychiatry and emergency medicine, according to the BLS. Other PAs work in family medicine and primary care, where they provide generalized, comprehensive care to patients. Primary care physician assistants perform regular wellness exams that many specialists don’t do. They also conduct routine screening for common medical conditions and diagnose and treat conditions such as colds and other illnesses.

A primary care PA may identify a problem through preventive screening and regular wellness examinations or in the course of diagnosing an illness that requires referral to a specialist – who may also be a PA.

A Healthcare Worker Educated in Clinical Medical Practice

While PAs don’t go through medical school, they complete their own form of advanced professional training. In a master’s degree program that takes two to three years to complete, they typically spend 2,000 hours on clinical work, according to the American Academy of PAs. Master’s degree programs in physician assistant studies often include clinical rotations in a variety of fields specialization, including primary care, family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, women’s health, emergency medicine and psychiatry.

Clinical experience is of immense importance to a PA, because the core of your job revolves around working with patients in a clinical setting. However, some PAs do work in other areas, like clinical research and academia.

Additional Resources

What is the Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Nurse Practitioner?

Why Would Someone Become a PA Instead of an MD?

What Is the Difference Between a Medical Assistant and a Physician Assistant?