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Physician Assistant FAQ

What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant (PA) is a health professional licensed by the state or credentialed by a federal employer to practice medicine as delegated by and with under the supervision of a physician. PAs provide a broad range of medical and surgical services that traditionally have been performed by physicians.

The PA works as a member of a team with his or her supervising physician as the leader of the team. PAs can meet the needs of patients in a variety of clinical settings. PAs have long been recognized as quality health care providers.

What does a physician assistant do?

As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, physician assistants perform physical exams, diagnose illnesses, develop and carry out treatment plans, order and interpret lab tests, suture lacerations, apply casts, assist in surgery, provide patient education and preventive health care counseling, and prescribe medications.

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To allow the physician – PA team to be the most efficient in providing care to patients, the vast majority of states do not require PAs and their supervising physicians to be at the same location. All state laws require the supervising physician to be available, either in person or by telecommunications when the PA is seeing patients.

What’s the difference between a PA and a physician?

Physician assistants are trained in medicine, just like physicians, and in some educational programs PAs attend many of the same classes as medical students. Both professions are educated to detect diseases and treat them, and to assist patients in living healthier lifestyles.

A major difference between PA education and physician education is the amount of time spent in their formal education. In addition, physicians are required to do an internship after graduation from medical school, and the majority of physicians complete a residency in a specialty following their internship. PAs are not required to undertake an internship or residency.

What kinds of conditions can PAs treat, and what situations require the doctor’s care?

What a PA does corresponds to the supervising physician’s practice. The cases handled by physicians are generally the more complicated medical cases or those that require care that is not a routine part of the PAs scope of work.

Supervising physicians determine which patients and what kinds of illnesses they want PAs to treat. Close consultation between the patient, PA and physician is done for unusual or hard-to-manage illnesses. Physician assistants are taught to know when it is appropriate to have the patient seen by the physician. It is an important part of PA training.

physician assistant Jamie Nelson

Have physician assistants been accepted on the health care team?

The American Medical Association, American College of Surgeons, American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Physicians, and other national medical groups support the physician assistant profession by having voting members on the boards that accredit PA educational programs and certify individual PAs.

PAs enjoy a collegial relationship with other health professionals because physician assistants have demonstrated their commitment to patients and their competence in delivering quality medical care. Their training as team players enables them to work with others to ensure appropriate patient care in all settings.

According to the Eighth Report to the President and Congress on the Status of Health Personnel in the United States: “Physician assistants have demonstrated their clinical effectiveness both in terms of quality of care and patient acceptance.”


Resource: About Physician Assistants. American Academy of Physician Assistants. Web. 07 Oct. 2009.



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