What is a PA?


I assume that everyone who visits this site knows what a PA is, but that may not necessarily be true.  The public is still somewhat uneducated about PAs and their capabilities, and as anyone interested in the profession it is our job to educate people.  I often get asked, "So when are you going to be a real doctor?" or "Are you going back to medical school?" so there is a true misconception of the education and role of PAs.

PA stands for physician assistant.  Although some people don't like the term "mid-level," I think it is a pretty good description for the role of PAs.  PAs have more education and are taught differently than nurses, but do not go through the rigorous training of residency that physicians have.  Nurses are educated in a holistic way so they can provide the best care possible to the patient, but they are not able to diagnose or treat patients.  They basically receive orders for a specific patient, and ensure that the patient is cared for according to the doctor's plan.  Physicians go through 4 years of medical school, then choose a specific specialty, and then complete a residency that can range from 3-12 years, and sometimes more.

The majority of PA programs require an undergraduate degree, and then offer a Masters.  PA programs are typically 2-3 years of very intense school, and then you are able to choose whether to do a residency or get a job.  The idea of PA residencies is fairly new, so the majority of new grads go straight into a position.  To become a certified PA, there is a national test that students must pass, and then they must be certified by the state they work for.  This must be maintained with recertification exams and keeping up with continuing education and state standards.

PAs have a supervising physician (SP) who oversees them to some degree and a lot of that depends on the state they are in.  For example, in Georgia the supervising physician must review 80% of notes written by PAs, but in South Carolina the supervising physician just has to review the notes occasionally with no specific requirement.  This website has a great graphic that shows the scope of practice for each state specifically.  The level of independence of PAs will vary based on the trust of the SP, specialty, experience, and state.  Personally, I have my own clinic schedule and I see all of my patients by myself.  If something difficult comes up, my SP is always available to discuss the case or pop in if necessary.  If I have any down time, I try to help her out as well.

PAs are similar to physicians in many ways.  They are able to see patients independently, take a history, make a diagnosis, decide on treatment, and prescribe medications.  There are also PAs who perform procedures and surgeries after adequate training.  In some states, there are restrictions on what medications PAs can prescribe, specifically pain medications.