Physician Assistants are licenses health professionals who practice medicine with physician supervision as members of a medical team. The profession was founded in the mid 1960’s and therefore is relatively new compared with other health professions. It is one of the fastest-growing occupations. PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, and prescribe medications. The scope of practice varies based on training, experience and state law.
At the beginning of 2007, there were nearly 64,000 Physician Assistants in clinical practice. While PAs have traditionally brought health care to the underserved in rural and inner city areas, today they practice in urban, suburban and rural settings. Over one-third of PAs work in one of the primary care fields: family/general practice; general internal medicine; obstetrics/gynecology; and general pediatrics and roughly one-fourth of PAs work in general surgery or a surgical subspecialty.
Most Physician Assistant programs require applicants to have previous health care
experience. Many applicants bring health care experience from previous careers as
an emergency medical technician, an orderly or a nurse’s aide, a nurse, x-ray technician,
physical therapist, respiratory therapist or military corpsman. This experience might
also include a substantial number of volunteer hours in a hospital or clinic.
PA education is similar to that for medical students, although shorter in duration (medical school education averages 155 weeks; PA education averages 111 weeks). Most accredited programs are between 24 and 27 months long. PA programs require students to complete 9 to 12 months of classroom studies, followed by 9 to 15 months of supervised clinical rotations. Graduates must pass a national certifying examination and log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and pass a recertification exam every six years to maintain their certification.