What Is A PA?

Updated March 3, 2023

There are many fulfilling careers in the healthcare industry, including the role of a physician assistant (PA). These medical professionals complete specialized education and experience to provide high-quality patient care in a number of healthcare settings. If you're interested in working in the healthcare field, consider becoming a PA. In this article, we explore what a PA does, the requirements to pursue this path and how they differ from nurse practitioners.

What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant is a person who examines, diagnoses and treats a patient under the supervision of a licensed physician. Some states in the US allow them to prescribe medications. Some physician assistants may specialize in a particular medical field, such as obstetrics, gynecology or pediatrics.

Though they may be supervised by a licensed physician, the physician does not need to be present when they are working on a patient. In some geographic locations, such as in rural areas, PAs may work unsupervised and may refer cases that they cannot handle to a licensed physician for more comprehensive care. Other PAs may work independently, providing primary care services and prescribing medications as allowed by their state's laws.

Responsibilities of a physician assistant

The role of a PA is both collaborative and versatile, and their responsibilities often include:

  • Reviewing and updating patient medical histories, including shot records, family history and others

  • Diagnosing and creating a treatment plan for a patient based on medical history

  • Performing physical exams on patients to find out the health profile of a patient

  • Ordering tests and interpreting results

  • Assisting in surgeries and other complex procedures

  • Conducting clinical research

  • Educating patients on preventive care, often in clinical or community outreach settings

Requirements to become a physician assistant

A PA needs a combination of education, training and licensing procedures to practice. The requirements are as follows:


To become a physician assistant, you must earn a bachelor's degree in a healthcare science, such as biology, chemistry or nursing. Coursework in lab science as well as behavioral science are beneficial. During your studies or as a post-graduate professional, complete at least 3000 hours of direct patient contact, working as a medical assistant, paramedic, athletics trainer or another medical professional.

After finishing your undergraduate studies and earning work experience, enroll in a three-year graduate-level physician assistant degree program. During the three years of study, you'll attend classes in human anatomy, pathology, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology and medical laws and ethics.

An alternative education path to become a physician assistant is to obtain a bachelor's degree in physician assistant program (BA-PA). In this path, you go through a bachelor's degree program while also completing the postgraduate program that qualifies them to become a PA. This route may be faster and cheaper because you get the needed qualification at once. The Accreditation Review Commission for Education on Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) must accredit the schools offering the physician assistant program for the certificate to be recognized.


The training for a physician assistant includes a required 2,000 hours of clinical rotations during graduate-level study. During the clinical rotation duties, they care for patients through a number of medical disciplines, including internal medicine, family medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, emergency medicine and obstetrics and general surgery. In addition, some physician assistant programs also offer a physician assistant shadowing program or internship to help a students make up direct patient interaction hours or gain more hands-on experience.


At the end of the PA training program, you take the Physician Assistant National Certification Exams (PANCE) to assess your knowledge of best patient care practices and techniques. This exam is comprised of a 5-hour long test and 300 multiple-choice test questions that assess the students' knowledge of basic medical and surgical procedures.

Passing this exam is a requirement for these professionals to qualify for PA licensure. To maintain the certification, the physician assistant takes 100 hours of Continuing Medical Education (CME) every two years. Physician assistants need to recertify every 10 years.

Differences between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner

The physician assistant and the nurse practitioner (NP) both practice under the supervision of other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and surgeons. They are alternatives for people who want to pursue a healthcare profession, but they have clear differences that impacts their approach to patient care, including:

  • Approach to patient care: A PA collaborates with licensed physicians to diagnose conditions, order tests, create treatment plans and sometimes prescribe medications for patients in their care. A nurse practitioner focuses on managing people's health conditions and preventing disease through education on overall wellness. NPs also provide emotional support and counseling as part of their patient care as well.

  • Education: A PA is required to obtain a graduate-level physician assistant degree that takes two to three years of relevant medical science coursework and clinical rotations in a variety of medical disciplines. Nursing practitioners earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) then a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), and some may even pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

  • Clinical training: Both PAs and NPs complete clinical rotation hours as part of their graduate-level studies. NPs must complete 1,000 hours of supervised clinical practice before they graduate from their masters-level program. In addition, these professionals have at least one year of previous professional experience working as a registered nurse.

  • Specialization: PAs train as generalists, which gives them the authority to treat all kinds of patients and in all age brackets. They may be trained to treat a specific population of people such as families, adult/gerontology, neonatal, pediatrics and women's health. Nurse practitioners can be trained as generalists but also have the option to specialize in family medicine and pediatrics as well as anesthesiology as a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

  • Practice regulations: Both PAs and NPs practice under supervising licensed physicians, but both may be allowed to practice independently, depending on their state's regulations. Though PAs have regulations on prescribing medication, many are afforded the same or similar privilege as physicians to do so according to a patient's treatment plan. Some states allow NPs to prescribe medication, both in independent practice and under physician supervision.

  • Certification maintenance: PAs must pass the PANCE exam and get a license from their state board before they can practice. A PA license is maintained by taking 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and you have to recertify at the end of every 10 years. PAs only have one certifying board they maintain qualification through. NPs do not need to recertify, but they take 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and 1000 hours of clinical hours every 5 years to maintain their license. They may also take an exam in place of the 1000 clinical hours. Nursing practitioners have six certifying boards to choose from, often depending on their chosen specialty.

Related careers

If you are interested in pursuing a medical career path, consider these roles as well:

1. Registered nurse

National Average Salary: $33.83 per hour

Primary Duties: This medical professional assists physicians and other senior medical professionals in administering medication, monitoring a patient's vitals and ensuring recovery and healing. Registered nurses also perform preliminary testings, such as blood pressure tests, and provide emotional support to patients and their families to help keep them calm and comfortable during their experience.

2. Speech pathologist

National Average Salary: $71,509 per year

Primary Duties: This medical professional specializes in patients with conditions that impact their speech patterns, speaking abilities and other general functions in the mouth and throat. They may perform diagnostic tests and assess patients abilities to better develop a treatment plan. Treatment may involve physical therapy exercises and speech practice with certain sounds or words.

3. Physician

National Average Salary: $199,699 per year

Primary Duties: These medical professionals diagnose patient conditions, order tests, analyze results, prescribe medication and treatment as well as monitor healing. Physician typically specialize in one medical discipline, such as family medicine, pediatrics, oncology, obstetrics and gynecology and others. In their specialty, they will meet with patients who have certain conditions or are of a certain age population and provide specialized education, treatment and medication.

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