Physician Assistants

One of the most prominent of the health care careers is that of physician assistant. Physician assistants are medically trained professionals who work under the supervision of an actual physician. They perform many of the same functions a doctor performs: assessment, diagnosis, treatment, evaluation, and prescription. Physician assistants (PAs) are trained like doctors in the “medical model," which means they study disease processes and how they affect the human body systems.

PAs evolved out of the medical corps in the Vietnam War. Doctors realized the value of the corpsmen in the field; the physicians had to care for the seriously ill and injured and perform surgery, and the corpsmen would care for the less seriously injured patients. The first PA program in the United States was created at Duke University, still one of the most respected PA programs in the country.

One can become a physician assistant with either a bachelor's or master's degree. Several associate's degree programs are accredited and available, but they are few and far between. Currently, there is a push in the profession to have all PAs prepared at the master's level, so that is the accepted entry level degree in most health care agencies. After one graduates from an accredited PA program, he or she must sit for the national certification exam, the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certification Exam). After passing this exam, the practitioner can add a “C" credential after his or her name (Bill Jones, PA-C).

Physician assistants work in all facets of health care: hospitals, doctors' offices, ambulatory and emergency care centers, and long-term care and rehabilitation. Although they technically work “under the supervision of a physician," they don't literally work alongside a doctor. Their purpose is to free up the physician to see the sicker patients or to perform rounds in the hospital while the doctor sees patients in the office. PAs do have prescription privileges in all 50 states.

Becoming a physician assistant is a viable option for anyone who wants hands-on patient care without enduring years of medical school and subsequent residency. One can choose to work anywhere in the health care realm and enjoy a rewarding career as a PA.

Last Updated: 05/21/2014

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