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What Is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a medical professional who diagnoses and treats medical disorders. They also prescribe prescriptions and may be the primary care medical provider for their patients. Physician assistants need certain skills and training to provide their patients with the care they need when dealing with medical conditions.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

A physician assistant focuses on the medical care of their patients, from diagnosis to follow-up care. A physician assistant has the following tasks:

  •       Complete patient intake form
  •       Assess the patient’s symptoms
  •       Create a treatment plan
  •       Administer medications
  •       Provide follow up care
  •       Diagnose medical conditions
  •       Educate patients on medical care
  •       Prescribe medications

A physician assistant’s daily tasks may also vary, depending on the environment in which they work. For example, a physician assistant who works in a private family clinic will primarily work with diagnosing and treating common medical disorders, like the common cold, or treating injuries.

A physician assistant who works in the emergency department of a hospital will focus more on the treatment of immediate symptoms. They may monitor vitals or conduct tests.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

Becoming a physician assistant requires the completion of a master’s degree, as well as hands-on training, often in the form of internships and residencies. Here is the usual path to becoming a physician assistant:

1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

Most aspiring physician assistants begin their career by choosing a bachelor’s degree program in pre-med or biology. Regardless of what bachelor’s degree you choose, you will need a strong background in science classes.

2. Complete a Masters Degree

During your last few years of a bachelor’s degree program, it can be helpful to begin researching master’s degree programs. While the program you choose is up to you, you do want to choose one that is accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PC). A master’s degree program will take, on average, three years. 

3. Gain Medical Experience

Many PAs choose to begin gaining experience in the medical industry during this time. They may work as an EMT or medical assistant to begin developing important medical skills.

4. Study for Your License

After graduating, you will need to successfully complete the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). This test is available through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This test includes a total of 300 questions that you must complete within five hours.

You will also need to maintain your license. Most states require that you complete ongoing education every ten years.

Physician Assistant Specializations

Some physician assistants may choose to specialize in a specific area of medical care. A specialization provides you with additional training in an area in which you want to work. Here are a few physician assistant specializations you may consider:

Family Medicine

Family medicine programs prepare physicians to work with patients of all ages, treating a wide range of medical conditions. Most family medicine practitioners work in an outpatient clinic.

Surgical Care

Surgical programs prepare physicians to assist surgeons in the operating room. The tasks as a surgical physician assistant may include diagnosis, preparation for surgery, post-operative care, or recovery care.

Urgent Care

Physician assistants in an urgent care setting provide immediate treatment to patients with an injury or sudden pain. Urgent care physician assistants may diagnose and treat things like sprains and infections.


Physician assistants who work in obstetrics focus on women’s health. They may work with women during labor and delivery.

Emergency Care

Some physician assistants may choose to work in emergency care. They will often administer emergency diagnostics and treatments to patients who need emergency medical care.


Physician assistants who specialize in dermatology focus on the health of the skin. They work with patients in tracking skin abnormalities while also educating clients on proper prevention.


Physician assistants who specialize in pediatrics work specifically with children. They may provide care to newborns or young children,


Physician assistants who specialize in gerontology work specifically with seniors. They focus on disorders like dementia or assist patients with mobility concerns.


How Much Does a Physician Assistant Make?

The median wage of a physician assistant in 2020 is $115,390 per year. Physician assistants can expect an average annual salary between $76,700 – $162,470 per year. Physician assistants who work in an outpatient care setting tend to have higher than average salaries, versus physician assistants who work in educational services, who are in the lower range.

The job outlook of physician assistants is very good, with an expected increase in demand of 31 percent by 2029. Physician assistants will be important in keeping up with aging populations.

Work Environment for a Physician Assistant

Evaluating the typical work environment of a physician assistant can help you decide if this career path is right for you. Although a PA refers to a physician assistant, they are not necessarily an assistant in the medical room. They often carry their own caseload and make their own diagnoses and treatment plans. While a physician assistant does work under the direct supervision of a physician, they often have their own patients. They may turn to their supervisory physician to assist with cases or to ensure medications they accurately prescribe medicine, but they are also responsible for diagnosing and treating patients on their own.

The workday of a physician assistant can be physically and emotionally demanding. PAs spend a lot of time on their feet, evaluating patient’s conditions and symptoms. Most PA’s work full-time schedules. If you work in an outpatient clinic, you will enjoy evenings and weekends off, as well as holidays. Physician assistants who work in a hospital setting may work non-traditional hours.

Important Skills of a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants often have skills that help them do well in their jobs. In addition to the training that you will receive while in college, the following skills are also beneficial:

  • Communication: Verbal and nonverbal communication skills are crucial when working as a physician assistant. A large part of a PA’s job is to understand the symptoms of the patient, including their pain levels. Additionally, PAs will need to clearly write this information in the patient records to ensure clear collaboration with other medical team members.
  • Empathy: The ability to not only sympathize but also empathize with patients is important as a physician assistant. PA’s work with patients when they are dealing with pain or making important decisions regarding their health. The ability to understand the patient’s worries and educate them is important.
  • Critical thinking: Critical thinking skills and the ability to solve problems quickly is important when working as a physician assistant. Patients often turn to their medical provider to improve symptoms.
  • Confidentiality: Physician assistants need to practice confidentiality as they often work with secure patient records. This often requires specialized knowledge of HIPPA and specific state laws.

Start your journey today toward becoming a physician assistant with a class. Develop the individual skills and experience you need to provide care to others.

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