General Questions

Here you will find answers to general questions about the PA profession and practice in the United States.


What is a physician assistant (PA)?

A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who works as part of a team with a doctor. A PA is a graduate of an accredited PA educational program who is nationally certified and state-licensed to practice medicine with the collaboration of a physician.

What are some typical physician assistant responsibilities?

PAs perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret lab tests, perform procedures, assist in surgery, provide patient education and counseling and make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes. All 50 states and the District of Columbia allow PAs to practice and prescribe medications.

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How are PAs educated and trained?

The PA educational program is modeled on the medical school curriculum, a combination of classroom and clinical instruction. The PA course of study is rigorous and intense. The average length of a PA education program is 27 months.

Admission to PA school is highly competitive. Applicants to PA programs must complete at least two years of college courses in basic science and behavioral science as prerequisites to PA school, analogous to premedical studies required of medical students. The majority of PA programs have the following prerequisites: chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and biology. Additionally, most PA programs require or prefer that applicants have prior healthcare experience.

PA education includes instruction in core sciences: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, pathophysiology, microbiology, clinical laboratory science, behavioral science and medical ethics.

PAs also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, physician offices and acute or long-term care facilities. Rotations include family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, general surgery, emergency medicine and psychiatry.

Practicing PAs participate in lifelong learning. In order to maintain national certification, a PA must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years.

There are currently 210 accredited PA programs in the United States. The vast majority award master’s degrees. PA education programs are represented by the Physician Assistant Education Association and accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

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Are PAs board certified?

PAs are educated in the medical model of health and upon completion of their training are certified by successfully passing the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam.  This exam is modeled after the NCCPA Blueprint that outlines the knowledge content and skills required to be a PA.  This certification is different than the medical “boards” that physicians take to certify their competency in a particular discipline or specialty of medicine.

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What do board certified PAs do?

Certified PAs practice medicine and improve the health of their patients in every specialty and clinical setting. They perform routine medical services and intricate procedures. PAs treat 7.7 million patients every week. Check out this overview by NCCPA of what certified PAs are able to do.  

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How do doctors and PAs work together?

By design, physicians and PAs work together as a team, and all PAs practice medicine with physician collaboration.

PAs are trained and educated similarly to physicians, and therefore share similar diagnostic and therapeutic reasoning. Physician-PA practice can be described as "delegated autonomy." Physicians delegate duties to PAs, and within those range of duties, PAs use autonomous decision-making for patient care. This team model is an efficient way to provide high-quality medical care. In rural areas, the PA may be the only healthcare provider on-site, collaborating with a physician elsewhere through telecommunication.

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Where can PAs practice?

PAs are authorized to practice medicine in every state, the District of Columbia, and other US Territories (Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico).

PAs can practice internationally, but the options are limited. Because the PA profession is still young in other countries, there may be lack of regulation or definition of PA practice. The most common ways to practice internationally are to work for the U.S. Department of State or to volunteer with a relief organization that serves developing countries.

There are few PA programs and PAs working in other countries:

  • Canada has the most established and fastest-growing network of PAs. PAs are authorized to practice in almost all Canadian provinces, and Canadian PAs are working to ensure adequate legislation for full PA practice.
  • The Netherlands has a growing cohort of PAs, with five PA programs and about 400 PAs, according to the Netherlands Association of Physician Assistants.
  • India has a growing and promising community of PAs. According to the Indian Association of Physician Assistants, there are 300 PAs practicing in India.
  • South Africa has a few programs that are similar to PA programs. Instead of “physician assistants,” program graduates are called “clinical associates.”
  • Saudi Arabia recently opened its first PA program.

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Can PAs prescribe medications?

PAs have prescribing privileges in 50 states, the District of Columbia, and most territories.  The Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico do not currently have statutes allowing PAs to prescribe.  The type or “schedule” of controlled medicines that a PA may prescribe can vary from state to state.

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Can PAs perform surgery?

This depends on how you define the term “surgery,” however, regardless of the definition, PAs are valuable assets to surgical teams because of their versatility. PAs are medically and surgically trained health professionals who can provide a wide range of services with a surgeon’s direction. Adding a PA to the surgical team not only helps to streamline procedures, but also supports ongoing case management.

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How many PAs are working in the United States?

There are currently 101,000 nationally certified PAs, according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

In 2014, there were 7,335 first-year PA students and 7,556 graduating PA students.

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