A Physician assistant, also referred to as a PA, is a medical professional who provides medical care under the supervision of a physician. Some physician assistants work alongside physicians while others perform their duties independently. Even when working independently, physician assistants always have a physician available for consultation, at least by telephone, when needed.
Physician assistants work in all types of medical settings including hospitals, clinics and private practices. They can be found in almost every medical specialty providing healthcare and writing prescriptions. Level of experience, specialty area and state laws determine physician assistants' scope of practice.
The first step to a career as a physician assistant is to complete an entry-level physician assistant program. Physician assistant programs generally require two years of study. The first year is typically devoted to related sciences such as anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry and pathology. The second year of study generally involves clinical rotations and advanced study in medical sciences.
The majority of programs offering entry-level physician assistant program award master's degrees. There are also colleges that offer associate's degree and bachelor's degree entry-level physician assistant program. Graduates of all programs must pass the same examination to become certified as a physician assistant.
Admission to physician assistant programs, undergraduate and graduate alike, is competitive. Program administrators accept candidates who have a demonstrated ability to complete the rigorous coursework involved and the potential to practice as competent physician assistants.
Admission to master's degree level physician assistant program is also typically based on students overall grade point average (GPA), science GPA, scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and related experience. Completion of a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited college is required for admission. While a science degree is not required, completion of advanced-level science courses can increase an applicant's likelihood of acceptance to some programs. Many programs require students to have work experience in a related medical field.
All physician assistant programs require applicants to have completed prerequisite courses for admission. Requirements vary among institutions based on program degree level and nature of the program. Some of the courses commonly required for admission at many master's degree level programs include biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry and psychology. Prospective physician assistants should check admission requirements of each program of interest.
Graduates of physician assistant programs are eligible to take the national certifying examination administrated by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Those who have passed this examination are awarded the title Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).
Physician assistants must stay current in their field. To maintain their certification, physician assistants must continue their education through coursework or seminar attendance. In addition, every six years physician assistants must pass a recertification examination or equivalent alternative program.