What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants work with physicians or surgeons providing patients with medical care by helping with treatment and diagnoses. They typically need to graduate from an accredited master's program and take an exam to get licensed. Read on to learn more about physician assistant job duties, educational requirements and career prospects. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Job Description

Like physicians, physician assistants are licensed professionals who offer health care to those who need it, but only under supervision, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). They work in different specialties, like family medicine, pediatrics, orthopedics and emergency medicine, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Important Facts About This Occupation

Professional CertificationTo remain Physician Assistant - Certified (PA-C), you must finish 100 hours of continuing education every two years
Key SkillsCompassionate, detail oriented, emotionally stable, good at communication and problem-solving
Work EnvironmentClinics, hospitals, surgical units
Similar OccupationsNurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, registered nurses


According to the BLS, the attending physician and state law determine the specific job duties of a physician assistant. The AAPA adds that experience and the type of practice could also affect the type of care a physician assistant administers. At some locales, a physician might only be present a few times a week, in which case the physician assistant has more responsibilities. They may confer with the physician when he or she is present, over the phone in an emergency or at scheduled meetings. Typical responsibilities, according to the BLS and the National Institute of Health (NIH) include:

  • Taking and recording patient history
  • Giving physical examinations
  • Setting splints and removing casts
  • Performing screening for different possible ailments and making a diagnosis
  • Taking blood cultures
  • Performing x-rays
  • Providing patient education
  • Prescribing medications to treat illnesses

Education and Training

Physician assistants generally need to graduate from an accredited master's degree program in order to take the exam to obtain licensure. This program lasts approximately two years and covers medical ethics, human anatomy and physiology, pathology, pharmacology and clinical medicine. In addition to taking classes, students do some work in a lab setting. Students also get to choose a specialty in which they receive supervised, clinical training.

Passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) is required to become licensed, which is needed in all states. After passing the exam, physician assistants have to meet continuing education requirements, and they take a recertification exam every decade.

Job Outlook and Salary

Physician assistants are expected to experience job growth that is much faster than average over the 2016 to 2026 decade, according to the BLS. The projected 37% growth is due to the aging population demanding health care services and the variety of services that physician assistants can offer. In May 2018, the median annual wage of a physician assistant was $108,610, and the BLS also reported that earnings were $69,120 or less for the bottom 10% of workers and $151,850 or more for the top 10% of workers.

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