Getting Treated by a

Physician Assistant

What is a physician assistant?
A physician assistant (PA) or certified physician assistant (PA-C) is a medical professional who works as part of a team with a doctor. A PA is a graduate of an accredited PA educational program and is nationally certified and state-licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician.

Can I request to be seen by a PA? 
Yes. PAs deliver high-quality care, and research shows that patients are just as satisfied with PA-provided care as they are with physician care.

How do doctors and PAs work together? 
Physicians and PAs work together as a team. All PAs practice medicine with physician supervision. The supervising physician does not always have to be present with the PA or direct every aspect of PA-provided care. 

How are PAs educated and trained?
PAs are trained and educated similarly to physicians, and therefore share similar diagnostic and therapeutic reasoning. Physicians delegate duties to PAs, and within those range of duties, PAs make autonomous decisions. This team model is an efficient way to provide high-quality medical care.

The PA educational program is modeled on the medical school curriculum, which is a combination of classroom and clinical instruction. The PA course of study is rigorous and intense. The average length of a PA education program is 27 months. PAs also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. 

What's the difference between PAs and Nurse Practitioners (NPs)?
The difference is in training and background. PAs are formally trained in a medical school-type model and after receiving this training and completing clinical and licensing requirements, can begin to care for patients. Under the supervision of a physician, PAs provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive health care services. They take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and x-rays, make diagnoses, treat injuries, record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy. PAs specializing in surgery provide preoperative and postoperative care and may work as first or second assistants during major surgery. 

NPs are registered nurses with advanced academic and clinical experience. They must have professional nursing experience before they can begin school to become a nurse practitioner. On average, NPs have more than 10 years experience before they begin as practitioners. Their training enables them to diagnose and manage most common illnesses, including chronic ones, either independently or as part of a health care team. NPs largely focus on health maintenance, disease prevention, counseling, and patient education in a wide variety of settings.

Compiled from American Academy of Physician Assistants, UC Berkeley Career Center, and The Washington Post AR2011010704936.