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What is a Physician Assistant?

The physician assistant (PA) profession first emerged from Duke University in the 1960s to help fill a growing physician shortage in the U.S. The first PAs were former military field medics with defined medical knowledge and skills acquired through their military service. By the 1970s, the U.S. government had approved of and more widely accepted PA programs, which—within a decade—began to expand, gain accreditation, and accept larger numbers of students.

Several decades later, PAs are now a ubiquitous part of the medical profession, and they continue to change the healthcare landscape. Both versatile and essential within hospitals and private practices, physician assistants offer critical, hands-on patient care.

A physician assistant is a skilled medical professional who works with a supervising physician in outpatient practices, inpatient settings, operating rooms, and emergency departments. Through an intensive master’s level program, PAs gain a generalist medical education to practice in primary care and a variety of specialties. Within 27 months, PAs are prepared to provide quality patient care, which helps offset worsening physician shortages and increase access to care. By working collaboratively in physician-led teams, PAs can improve coordination of care and overall patient outcomes.

What does a physician assistant do?

A physician assistant will perform a host of necessary tasks related to patient care, including, but not limited to, eliciting a patient history, performing physical exams, formulating comprehensive management plans, and prescribing medications. Depending on the specialty, PAs may also perform or assist physicians with both medical and surgical procedures.

Most fields and specializations that exist for physicians are also available as specializations for physician assistants. According to the 2019 Statistical Profile of Certified Physician Assistants, the most common specialties include: 

  • Surgical Subspecialties (such as Orthopedic Surgery and Cardiothoracic Vascular Surgery – 18.7%
  • Family Medicine/General Practice – 18.6%
  • Emergency Medicine – 12.8%
  • Internal Medicine Subspecialties (such as Cardiology, Gastroenterology, and Oncology) – 9.5%
  • General Practice Internal Medicine – 4.5%
  • Dermatology – 4.1%
  • Hospital Medicine – 3.5%
  • General Surgery – 3.0%
  • Pediatrics – 1.9%
  • Psychiatry – 1.6%

Physicians and physician assistants may operate within the same specialties, but there is divergence regarding the complexity and responsibilities within their work. Physicians commonly handle more complicated cases and will often serve in an advisory role for physician assistants on their team.

Physician assistants must have a supervising physician to practice medicine. However, the level of supervision required depends on state laws, which can range from direct to indirect supervision. PAs are trained to request assistance or defer to their supervising physicians when necessary. However, most physician assistants will handle a large percentage of patient cases either independently or with only minimal input from their supervising physician.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: What’s the difference?

The physician assistant and nurse practitioner (NP) roles are often confused. The professions share many similarities, and many of their job duties overlap. Both PAs and NPs are an integral part of the healthcare team.

Where these roles differ is in what each emphasizes. PAs are trained within a medical model (similar to physicians) and have the flexibility to change specialties by receiving on-the-job training. Conversely, NPs are trained within a nursing model and select an area of specialization for their practice (e.g., women’s health, family medicine, mental health).

And while many PAs may do a majority of their work with patients independently, they are not legally able to work without an associated supervising physician. However, in some states, nurse practitioners are given full practicing authority and can operate without a supervising physician.

How much does a physician assistant earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average income for a physician assistant in 2019 was over $112,000 per year.

Physician assistants are less common than nurse practitioners, but it’s a profession that’s seen incredible growth and continues to sustain a significant level of demand.

The BLS reports there were over 125,000 certified PAs in the U.S. in 2019. The field is expected to grow by 31 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is significantly faster than most other professions.

How do I become a physician assistant?

There are three requirements necessary to become a practicing physician assistant in the U.S.:

  1. First, you must complete and graduate from an accredited physician assistant educational program, such as KGI’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program.
  2. Second, you must take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination to earn national certification.
  3. Third, you must apply for and be granted a state license to practice medicine.

Although a master’s degree is not required, it’s highly recommended. In its annual 2019 survey of the profession, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) found that the vast majority (77 percent) of PAs have a master’s degree, while 17.9 percent hold just a bachelor’s degree, and less than 2.5 percent accessed the profession through an associate’s degree or non-degree-granting certification program.

Your best path forward to obtaining a high-paying and highly respected job as a physician assistant is to earn a master’s degree through an accredited and well-regarded institution. KGI’s Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPA) program can help prepare you to take on the challenge of working within the fast-paced medical field. Not only will you learn modern medical approaches hands-on, but you’ll also gain real-world clinical experience within top medical facilities in Southern California.

KGI’s 27-month-long MSPA program will equip you to take on multiple roles within the medical profession, including physician assistant, healthcare administrator, educator, and clinical researcher.

Contact KGI today to learn more about the Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program, application requirements, and tuition assistance options.