Physician Assistant  What They Do

Just the Facts

Physician Assistants Career Video

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dotPhysician assistants practice medicine under the guidance of a doctor. They are licensed health-care professionals who can perform physical exams, diagnose illnesses, order treatments and assist in surgeries.

A physician assistant (PA) can specialize in different areas. For example, a PA working with a surgeon would have training in surgical techniques and pre- and post-operative care.

The duties performed by a physician assistant vary. More than 80 percent of a physician's work can be done by a PA. That means a lot of job duties.

"It includes rehab medicine all the way up to intensive surgical care," says physician assistant Ian Jones. He's the director of a physician assistant program at a university. "[The profession covers] the whole gamut -- very small towns to major metropolises. Where PAs will make the biggest difference, though, is in rural communities."

dotPhysician assistants aren't nurses. PAs share responsibilities with doctors and are trained to diagnose and treat illnesses.

"Our graduates, many of them will end up working in primary care, but they also end up working in just about any specialty area that you can think of, whether that's nephrology (kidney-related ailments), urology, ...orthopedics, pulmonology (respiratory diseases)," says physician assistant Ky Haverkamp. He's a professor in the PA program at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "Anywhere you can think of, there's a PA there."

PAs can work in medical offices, hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics and even in prisons. They also work for the military. In each case, they work on a team with a physician as the team, but this doesn't mean a physician is always present.

"The supervision can just be administrative in nature," says Jones. "You don't actually have to have a physician onsite with the PA... It's more of a partnership. It's more team-based medicine where the physician is the team leader [rather than a supervisor]."

dotIn rural areas, a physician might be present only once or twice a week. In such a case, the PA might be the main health-care provider.

"There's a lot of unmet needs in our communities, and so I think people are responding to that, as well as realizing that being a PA offers you a high level of job satisfaction and a lot of responsibility," says Haverkamp. "And it's a really fun job that helps you provide health care in a very independent setting."

dot PAs report high job satisfaction no matter where they work. It pays to be a PA.

"When they study PAs out in the field and they look at how many of them are still in clinical practice, approximately 90-plus percent still work in clinical practice and still say they love their job," says Kevin Lohenry, past president of the Physician Assistant Education Association. "And you don't see those percentages nearly as high in nursing, medicine and dentistry."

Because people get sick and require attention both day and night, some PAs must work weekends and nights and be on call. Physician assistants working in a doctor's office may not have to work the extra hours required of a PA working in a hospital setting.

Generally, PAs work in clean, comfortable environments and don't have to do any heavy lifting. However, those working in surgery may have to be on their feet for long periods of time.

Just the Facts

Want a quick overview of what this career is about?Check out Just the Facts for simple lists of characteristics.

At a Glance

Help doctors diagnose and treat people

  • PAs work under the supervision of doctors
  • They can specialize in different areas
  • Specialized training is available

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