What Is a Physician’s Assistant?

A physician’s assistant (PA) is a licensed clinician who practices medicine in partnership with doctors. In the United States, the role was created to respond to a shortage of doctors during the mid-1960s. Today, PAs play an essential role in areas with limited medical access. 

They work semi-autonomously and must work in association with a physician. This may be a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). The physician doesn’t necessarily need to be on-site when the PA performs tasks, but most states require them to be readily available through telecommunications.

Physician assistant checks patient in hospital bed

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Physician’s assistants are trained to perform many tasks also performed by doctors, such as taking medical histories and ordering tests. Some PAs may also have additional training to work in specialized care settings. 

PAs can work in various settings, including hospitals, doctor’s offices, nursing homes, educational settings, prisons, rural clinics, and more. 

This article will take a closer look at the role of a physician’s assistant. 


The duties of a PA depend on the setting in which they work but may include:

  • Taking your medical history
  • Performing a physical exam
  • Diagnosing conditions
  • Treating conditions, including developing treatment plans
  • Ordering tests
  • Interpreting test results
  • Prescribing, though this may be limited, especially with controlled substances
  • Providing preventive care advice
  • Performing medical procedures
  • Making rounds in specific settings like hospitals 
  • Assisting in surgery
  • Research

What exactly they treat depends on the individual person they’re seeing. PAs have a master's degree level of education that includes clinical training and courses on behavioral and medical sciences. 

They’re trained in various clinical settings, including specialty settings, such as surgery and gynecology. Unlike nurse practitioners, who must specialize in a specific population, PAs receive education in general medicine and receive training to practice medicine and not nursing.

Depending on the setting in which a PA works, they are typically responsible for practicing medicine as allowed by law in the state they’re based in, including in specialized settings.

For example, a PA working alongside a general surgeon may be responsible for closing incision sites and providing surgical aftercare. However, they are not responsible for performing the actual surgical procedure.

In some situations, PAs may have minimal supervision. Especially in rural settings, where they act as primary care providers. Doctors may only visit occasionally, but they may collaborate more often via phone or video call with the PA.


The majority of PAs work in surgery or primary care settings, such as family practice. PAs may work in many specialty settings and have additional training that allows them to perform specialized tasks.

Those who choose to, may get additional certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) in these subspecialties after fulfilling requirements:

Training and Certification 

The average training time for PAs is about 24 months. In most cases, PAs have several years of experience in the medical field before embarking on PA school training.  For example, PAs may have a background in the following:

  • Nursing
  • Emergency first responder services
  • A degree in the sciences, such as a bachelor of science in biology, physiology, or anatomy

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, more than 200 programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc.

After completing their studies, PAs then need to:

  • Pass a national certification exam 
  • Complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years
  • Recertify by passing the exam again every six years 

To practice medicine, would-be PAs must pass the NCCPA's Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). This is the only recognized certification in the United States. Someone with a different credential is not qualified to perform PA duties in the United States.

Appointment Tips

You arrive at your appointment to find out you’ll be seeing a PA and not a doctor. What does that mean for you? For the most part, there is little difference in the experience. The PA will be qualified to perform many of the tasks you would expect a doctor to perform during a medical appointment.

You may be assigned a PA as your primary healthcare provider if you get your care from a health maintenance organization (HMO) or live in a rural area. But they also may be your main point of contact for specialty care, such as when you are going to a dermatology clinic for a skin condition.

Even though PAs don't go to medical school, they still have extensive training in patient care. When doctors are in short supply, PAs help by offloading some of the work required by physicians. They may also have more time for you than an overworked doctor who's spread too thin.


A physician assistant or physician associate (PA) is qualified to practice medicine alongside a supervising doctor. They can perform many tasks a doctor does, including performing physical exams and providing treatments. They work in settings that include clinics, emergency departments, hospitals, and surgical centers.

A PA must complete a master's-level course of study, pass a national examination, and be licensed to practice in their state. Some choose to specialize in areas like surgery or dermatology, and may get additional certification.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Physician assistant profession (PA).

  2. American Medical Association. State law chart - physician assistants' scope of practice.

  3. American Academy of Physician Associates. What is a PA? 

  4. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. What physician assistants do

  5. National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Certificates of added qualifications (CAQs)

  6. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. How to become a physician assistant.

By Steph Coelho
Steph Coelho is a freelance health and wellness writer and editor with nearly a decade of experience working on content related to health, wellness, mental health, chronic illness, fitness, sexual wellness, and health-related tech.She's written extensively about chronic conditions, telehealth, aging, CBD, and mental health. Her work has appeared in Insider, Healthline, WebMD, Greatist, Medical News Today, and more.