A physician assistant is a licensed member of the health care team. Physician assistants are credentialed (not state licensed) if they work for the government, in the military, or in a VA hospital, for example. The journey starts with an undergraduate education emphasizing the sciences and work experience caring for patients. Armed with this education and skill set, prospective physician assistants apply to an accredited physician assistant program. Students accepted to physician assistant school undergo two or more years of intensive health science education and clinical training. In the end, students sit for the national certifying exam and pursue state licensure.
Licensed physician assistants may examine patients, order and interpret tests, assist in surgery, diagnose and treat illness, educate clients on health care issues, and prescribe medications under a physician’s supervision. A physician assistant will consult on cases with his or her supervising physician and will refer cases to the physician or another specialist when cases are beyond the physician assistant’s scope of practice. Generally speaking, a physician assistant can capably handle 80% of patient needs, but exact duties will depend on the supervising physician’s scope of practice and interest in delegating, as well as on the physician assistant’s training and experience.
Most physician assistant schools offer a condensed generalized education, but some specialize in teaching surgical skills, public health, or practicing in a rural area. A physician assistant with specialized surgical training and experience, for example, can be given more responsibility in the surgical suite and may be a surgeon’s first assistant.
In 2008, 43% of physician assistants were in solo or group practices; another third worked in hospitals; and the rest worked in schools, correctional facilities, industrial facilities, rural clinics, community health centers, nursing homes, and facilities specializing in surgery. Physician assistants willing and able to practice in traditionally underserved environments are particularly critical. When a physician assistant is the principal care provider, he or she must be mindful of any legal restrictions on his or her practice and confer with the supervising physician and others as needed. Although physician assistants generally work for forty hours per week, hours can vary with the setting, and some managerial duties such as staff supervision or ordering supplies may be assigned.
The phrase “negotiated performance autonomy” is sometimes used to describe physician assistant work. Based on a physician assistant’s coursework and work experience, a physician assistant and his or her supervising physician will negotiate which cases the PA will handle independently, which with more oversight, and which will be referred. Using those guidelines, the physician assistant can manage his or her own cases. Therefore, the ability to work independently with confidence is valuable.
Because physician assistants capably handle 80% of the types of cases seen by physicians at a lower rate of pay, they are considered both productive and cost-effective members of the health care team. Being an integral member of the health care team, using intellectual and social skills to the fullest, and ensuring the best possible health for patients make this career especially rewarding. In 2009, CNN Money ranked physician assistant number two on its Top 50 Best Jobs in America list. US News and World Report has also named physician assistant one of the best careers in America in 2009. Physician assistant is one of the fastest-growing careers, with reliable job prospects.
Physician assistants are lifelong learners. In addition to on-the-job learning, physician assistants must accrue 100 continuing medical education hours every two years. A recertification exam is taken every six years to ensure physician assistants continue to meet the standard of care.