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What does a Physician Assistant do?

Physician assistants (PAs) provide medical care under the supervision of a physician. PAs can gather health histories, provide physical examinations, diagnose and treat patients. They may order and interpret labs and radiologic scans, such as X-rays. Some physician assistants provide pre- and postoperative care and may act as first or second assistant during surgery. PAs may also prescribe certain medications.

The first PA program started in the mid-1960s. The career was conceived as a way to meet the public's demand for medical services.

Education and Training

All PAs must complete an accredited physician assistant training program that generally takes 26 to 27 months. Admission requirements vary from program to program, but most applicants already have a bachelor's degree and healthcare experience before beginning the program.

Physician assistant programs are typically offered at medical schools, four-year colleges, schools of allied health and academic medical centers.

The first year of study is typically devoted to scientific study; students take anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology, microbiology and courses in clinical medicine and medical ethics. The second year is devoted to clinical rotations through family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics and other specialty areas.

After graduation, physician assistants are eligible to take the national certifying exam, which is administered by the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants. Those who pass are eligible to use the title physician assistant - certified (PA-C).

To maintain their certification, physician assistants must take 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years and pass a re-certification exam every six years.

Work Setting

Most physician assistants - over 50 percent - work in physician offices. In rural areas, especially, a physician assistant may be the only medical professional physically on site. While all PAs work under the supervision of a physician, in some states, it's acceptable for the physician and PA to collaborate by phone with physical check-ins a couple times per week.

Physician assistants also work in hospitals and outpatient care centers, including colleges and universities.


CNNMoney listed "physician assistant" number two on their list of 100 Best Jobs in America, citing strong demand, good pay and satisfying work. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for PAs is expected to increase 39 percent.


Physician assistants in hospitals and outpatient care centers tend to earn slightly more than those who work in physician offices.

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