A physician assistant, or PA, is one of three types of primary care providers—nurse practitioners and physicians. As a primary care provider, a PA may be the first healthcare worker patients see for wellness visits and when sick or injured. This role was first given to PAs with the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. According to the law a physician assistant may evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients. They can work alone or in collaboration with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

Although they do not hold medical degrees, PAs have very strong training in general medicine. They are skilled professionals and must have a certain level of education and pass an examination in order to be licensed and to be certified. They play an important role in healthcare, providing access to good care for patients who might otherwise not see a physician.

What is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a primary care provider with less training than physicians, but with a solid level of knowledge and training in general medicine. They often practice alongside physicians, or work in teams with a range of medical professionals, but PAs can also practice independently, acting as primary care providers for their patients. When visiting with a patient, there are no requirements that a physician must be on the premises or that each patient must be seen by a physician as well as by the PA. The PA can take complete charge of patient appointments. For patients with health problems they are not equipped to handle, they can make referrals to physicians or specialists.

PAs are nationally certified but also licensed by individual states in which they work. Before becoming licensed and certified, PAs must complete a bachelor degree program, equivalent to a pre-medicine program, and then they complete a PA program that typically takes three years. In addition to coursework, PAs train like doctors do, with clinical rotations in areas like family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, psychiatry, general surgery, and more. They go through at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotation experiences.

What Physician Assistants Do

The name physician assistant can be misleading. These professional healthcare workers are not just assistants to doctors. They are highly-trained and knowledgeable medical practitioners. They can do everything that physicians and nurse practitioners do: evaluate and examine patients, diagnose conditions, treat patients, perform general procedures, and prescribe medications. Some other things that PAs can do for patients include:

  • Perform physical examinations.
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests.
  • Diagnose illnesses.
  • Develop, monitor, and adjust treatment plans.
  • Treat illnesses and injuries.
  • Monitor patients over the long-term.
  • Perform procedures and assist during more complex surgeries.
  • Write prescriptions.
  • Provide preventative care, wellness care, and education for patients.
  • Do rounds in nursing homes and hospitals.
  • Participate in clinical research.

PAs are general medical practitioners, but some also specialize in certain areas of medicine. These PAs have expanded duties and services that they can offer patients. Examples of specialties for PAs include orthopedic surgery, psychiatry, pediatrics, kidney disease, hospital medicine, emergency medicine, and cardiovascular and thoracic surgery.

Where Physician Assistants Work

Physician assistants work in a variety of medical settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, retail clinics and drug store clinics, school and university clinics, correctional institutions, government agencies and institutions, including the military, medical centers, community clinics, and private practices. PAs may work as part of a team, under the supervision of a physician, or as the leader of a team of healthcare workers.

Who Can Benefit from a Physician Assistant?

Anyone, at any age, and with any medical issues can benefit from seeing a physician assistant. As primary care providers they can see anyone who has any health concern or for preventative and wellness care. Patients who have a general practice doctor may see the PA that works in the office for any of their concerns, exams, diagnoses, and other needs. Patients with chronic illnesses, who are trying to make healthy lifestyle changes, who live in nursing homes, and who are in the hospital, among many others, may end up working with a PA.

The Importance of Physician Assistant Care

As primary care providers, physician assistants play a crucial role in preventing illness and promoting wellness. They provide general healthcare that is focused on prevention and education as well as treatment. They also often work in underserved communities, where patients don’t often have access to doctors. For this reason, PAs are important for improving overall public health.

When PAs work in collaboration with physicians, they provide a lot of benefits for the patients. The collaborative team reduces wait times for patients, increases the amount of time patients spend face-to-face with a healthcare professional, and allows patients to get more and better quality care. When a medical office has a PA on staff, patients often find it is easier to get more timely appointments.

PAs are unique in that their training allows them to work independently but also focuses on collaboration. They excel in providing good quality care for patients because they learn how to work with other professionals in order to best serve patients. It has also been shown that when doctors’ offices employ PAs, the cost of serving patients goes down.

Getting Quality Medical Care from a Physician Assistant

Most patients are happy to work with PAs instead of with physicians. Most patients know that PAs are highly trained and capable of providing the same services as a doctor would. While this is generally true, it is always important to be proactive and to be one’s own advocate when seeing any health professional. If you want to see your doctor but are visited by the PA, speak up and insist on seeing the physician. If you are comfortable working with a PA, make sure the one that you see is certified and licensed.

Getting good healthcare, whether from a physician or a PA, is important for patient wellness and public health. PAs provide an important link in the healthcare industry, giving more patients access to good medical care and allowing more patients to have adequate time to speak with and be examined by their healthcare professionals. When you work with a physician assistant, know that you are getting care from a dedicated professional held to the same rigorous standards as physicians.