Q. What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?
A. Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, and in virtually all states write prescriptions. Within the physician-PA relationship, physician assistants exercise autonomy in medical decision making and provide a broad range of diagnostic and therapeutic services. A PA's practice may also include education, research, and administrative services.
PAs are trained in intensive education programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
Because of the close working relationship the PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in the medical model designed to complement physician training. Upon graduation, physician assistants take a national certification examination developed by the National Commission on Certification of PAs (NCCPA) in conjunction with the National Board of Medical Examiners. To maintain their national certification, PAs must log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and sit for a recertification every ten years. Graduation from an accredited physician assistant program and passage of the national certifying exam are required for state licensure.
Q. What does "PA-C" stand for? What does the "C" mean?
A. Physician assistant-certified. It means that the person who holds the title has met the defined course of study and has undergone testing by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). The NCCPA is an independent organization, and the commissioners represent a number of different medical professions. It is not a part of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). To maintain that "C" after "PA", a physician assistant must log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and take the recertification exam every ten years.
Q. How did the Physician Assistant profession begin?
A. In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage and uneven distribution of primary care physicians. To expand the delivery of quality medical care, Dr. Eugene Stead of the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He selected Navy corpsmen who received considerable medical training during their military service and during the Vietnam war, but had no comparable civilian employment.
Q. How is a Physician Assistant educated?
A. Physician assistants are educated in intensive medical programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The average PA program curriculum runs approximately 27 months. There are currently more than 250 accredited programs. All PA programs must meet the same ARC-PA standards.
Because of the close working relationship PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in a medical model. PA students are taught to think critically in order to diagnose and treat medical problems.
Education consists of classroom and laboratory instruction in the basic medical and behavioral sciences (such as anatomy, pharmacology, pathophysiology, clinical medicine, and physical diagnosis), followed by clinical rotations in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and geriatric medicine.
A PA's education continues after graduation. PAs are required to take ongoing continuing medical education classes and be retested on their clinical skills on a regular basis. A number of postgraduate PA programs and fellowships have been established to provide practicing PAs with advanced education in medical specialties.
Q. What are the prerequisites for applying to a PA program?
A. PA programs look for students who have a desire to study, work hard, and to be of service to their community. Most physician assistant programs require applicants to have previous health care experience and college education. The typical applicant already has a bachelor's degree and prior health care experience. Check with PA educational programs of interest to you for a list, minimum GPA requirements, minimum health care experience hours, and degree required prior to application.
Scope of Practice
Q. What areas of medicine can Physician Assistants work in?
A. Physician assistants (PAs) are found in all areas of medicine. They practice in the areas of primary care medicine - that is family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology -- as well in surgery and the surgical subspecialties.
Physician assistants receive a broad education in medicine. Their education is ongoing after graduation through continuing medical education requirements and continual interaction with physicians and other health care providers.
Q. What is the working relationship between a physician and a physician assistant?
A. The relationship between a PA and the supervising physician is one of mutual trust and respect. PAs practice in a team model with physicians treating the patient in the style and manner developed and agreed to by both at the practice site. This is described in detail in the American Academy of Physician Assistants policy of “Optimal Team Practice” (OTP), which TAPA later clarified in our policy paper.
- PAs NATIONWIDE — In the 2019 NCCPA statistical profile, 139,668 PAs are practicing across the United States.
- PAs in TEXAS— There are 9,174 PAs practicing in Texas at the end of 2019.
- ACCREDITED PA PROGRAMS — There are 8 accredited PA programs in Texas. As of July 2020, there are 260 accredited programs in the US. Programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA, Web site, www.arc-pa.org). The ARC-PA is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).
The typical PA program is 24-27 months long and requires a bachelor's degree. Almost all programs award graduates with a Master’s degree upon completion. A detailed report of physician assistant education can be found in the “By the Numbers” Program Report, with the most recently cited edition 34, 2018 survey.
- STUDENTS — About 10,500 students are enrolled in PA programs in the US. The number of new graduates in 2018 was approximately 10,000.
- INCOME — The US bureau of labor statistics reports the median pay for physician assistants in 2019 is $112,260/year or $53.97/hour. For a more detailed, state by state and medical specialty breakdown, join the AAPA to obtain an annual salary report.
- OUTLOOK ON PROFESSION — According to the US bureau of labor statistics, the profession is projected to grow 31% from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average of all occupations. As demand for health professionals grows, physician assistants will be needed to provide patient care.
- LICENSURE — All states plus the District of Columbia and Guam have laws with licensure as a regulatory term.
CERTIFICATION AND CME — PAs receive their national certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Only graduates of an accredited PA program are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Once a PA is certified, he or she must complete a continuous ten-year cycle to keep her/his certificate current. Every two years, a PA must earn and log 100 CME hours and re-register his or her certificate with the NCCPA, and by the end of the tenth year, recertify by successfully completing either the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Examination (PANRE) or Pathway II.