Mayo Clinic physician assistant listening to a patient

What does a physician assistant do?

A physician assistant (PA) is a licensed medical professional who holds an advanced degree and is able to provide direct patient care. They work with patients of all ages in virtually all specialty and primary care areas, diagnosing and treating common illnesses and working with minor procedures.

With an increasing shortage of health care providers, PAs are a critical part of today’s team-based approach to health care. They increase access to quality health care for many populations and communities.

Scope of practice

The specific duties of a PA are determined by their supervising physician and state law, but they provide many of the same services as a primary care physician. They practice in every state and in a wide variety of clinical settings and specialties.

On a typical day, the roles and responsibilities of a PA include:

  • Making rounds and performing patient exams
  • Diagnosing illnesses
  • Assisting in surgery
  • Ordering and interpreting laboratory tests and X-rays
  • Prescribing medications
  • Developing and managing treatment plans
  • Advising patients on preventative care and optimal health practices

While PAs work in collaboration with a supervising physician, this does not mean they work under direct supervision of a physician. Most work independently, operating under a set scope of practice determined by state law. For example, each state has rules and regulations regarding which types of medication a PA can prescribe. Anything outside of that list requires additional consulting from a physician.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner

Many times, the role of a PA gets confused with the role of a nurse practitioner. While they serve a similar role, their training and specialization options are very different.

A PA is educated in general medicine and trained using a disease-centered curriculum model similar to that of a medical student. They also have the ability to specialize in a variety of areas after they get their degree.

Nurse practitioners on the other hand are educated as an advanced nursing role, following a patient-centered model of education and practice. They also typically select a primary specialty before beginning their graduate program and subsequently work with that specific patient population.

Specializations

Because PAs have the opportunity to excel in virtually any specialty area of medicine, types of physician assistants span a variety of roles, specialties, and sub-specialty areas. PAs have the ability to specialize in one or several areas throughout their career. This versatility is a main advantage of the PA role.

Some of the more common specialty areas include:

  • Anesthesia
  • Cardiology
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency medicine
  • ENT/Otolaryngology
  • Family medicine
  • General practice
  • Internal medicine
  • Neurology
  • Obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN)
  • Radiology
  • Pediatrics
  • Surgery

In order to specialize in a particular area, advanced training is often required. Typically PAs will be required to complete a fellowship or residency in order to practice in a specialty or sub-specialty area. Additional training requirements, certifications, roles, responsibilities, and things such as pay do vary between specialty areas.

Work environment

PAs are commonly employed at hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient centers, and nursing homes. They spend a majority of their time on their feet making rounds and working with patients. They are also responsible for administrative duties such as updating patient records, taking notes, and communicating with patients online.

The typical PA works full time, 40 hours per week. This role may often times require additional hours. Their shifts vary, and they may be required to work nights, weekends, or holidays. This role is also usually required to be on call occasionally.

Becoming a physician assistant

Employers look for several qualifications when selecting candidates for a PA role. They seek candidates who have strong communication skills, compassion and empathy, a focus on patient care, and the ability to solve problems and work well under pressure.

PAs enter the field with a master’s degree from an accredited PA program. In addition, most have previous experience working with patients and a strong desire to advance their health care career.

Higher education requirements

While everyone’s path to becoming a PA is different, after high school most start with a bachelor’s degree focusing on science coursework.

The typical pathway to becoming a certified PA (PA-C) includes:

Similar to most health care careers, in order to maintain certification, PAs must participate in continuing education every two years and take a recertification exam every 10 years.

Career opportunities and outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a PA is $105,000. This is dependent on location, experience, and if they work in a specialty area.

Employment of PAs is expected to grow by 37% from 2016 to 2026. This is much faster than average and due to expanding health services and focus on cost savings.

Physicians and institutions are expected to employ more PAs to provide primary care and assist with medical and surgical procedures. Technology and increased use of one-on-one, direct communication with patients will also expand the use of physician assistants.

In addition, state-imposed legal limitations on the numbers of hours worked by physician residents are increasingly common and encourage hospitals to use PAs to supply some physician resident services. Opportunities will be best in states that allow PAs a wider scope of practice.

From nurse to physician assistant: In many cases, current nurses choose to transition into the role of a nurse practitioner. However, depending on future goals, some may choose to advance into the role of a physician assistant. Their past patient experience will definitely be valuable as they progress through their training. In order for a nurse to become a physician assistant, they will need to either ensure they meet or complete the prerequisites and higher education requirements needed to apply to a physician assistant program. Then, after completing a two-year physician assistant program, they will need to become certified to practice as a physician assistant.

From nurse practitioner to physician assistant: Even though the roles of a nurse practitioner and physician assistant are similar, there are some differences that may cause a nurse practitioner to receive additional training and move into the role of a physician assistant. In order for a nurse practitioner to become a physician assistant, they will first need to either ensure they meet or complete the prerequisites and higher education requirements needed to apply to a physician assistant program. After completing a two-year physician assistant program, they will need to become certified to practice as a physician assistant.

From physical therapist to physician assistant: A physical therapist may want to advance to a role of a physician assistant for a variety of reasons. In order for a physical therapist to become a physician assistant, they will need to either ensure they meet or complete the prerequisites and higher education requirements needed to apply to a physician assistant program. After completing a two-year physician assistant program, they will then need to become certified to practice as a physician assistant.

By the numbers

Mayo Clinic nurse practitioner examining a young patient

Nurse practitioner

Mayo Clinic physical therapist treating a patient

Physical therapist

Mayo Clinic occupational therapist assisting a patient

Occupational therapist

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