What is a Physicians Assistant

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The definition of a Physician’s Assistant or PA, is a health care professional who provides patient services ranging from physical examinations to surgical procedures, under the supervision of a physician.

How Did PAs Come To Be?

Educators at Duke University recognized a shortage in the area of Primary Care. In 1965, the first PA program was designed, it’s first four students were ex-military corpsmen who gained medical experience as paramedics during the Vietnam conflict. Dr. Eugene Stead was the one who first initiated the first class and based the classes of the PA program on the fast-track training of doctors during the World War II. There were 2 principles governing the PA program:

1. The time to teach PAs will be significantly less than medical school
2. Practicing PA’s will always be under the supervision of a practicing doctor

There, currently, are 116 programs in operation. Most of the programs require students to have at least 2 years of college experience and some experience within the health care setting. The PA is prepared, both academically and clinically, to provide health care with the direction and responsible supervision of a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Osteopathy (DO). PA functions include performing diagnostic, therapeutic, preventive, and health maintenance services. PAs take medical histories, examine patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and x-rays and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries by suturing, splinting, and casting.

PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy. Most PAs can prescribe medications. PAs also may make house calls, or go to the hospital and nursing homes to check on patients. Remember PAs always work under the supervision of a physician. The extent of supervision depends on State law.

PAs are regulated at two different levels. Licensure is a process that takes place at the state level in accordance with specific state laws. In contrast, certification is established through a national organization, with requirements for minimal practice standards being consistent across all states. All states' laws require PAs to have a supervising physician. This physician does not necessarily have to be on site at the same location as the PA. Most states allow physician supervision to occur per telephone communications with periodic site visits. Supervising physicians review and sign all visits recorded in the patient’s file by the PA.

In 1975, and independent organization, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, was established to administer a certification program inclusive of an entry-level examination and continuing medical education and periodic re-examination for rectification. Only PAs who graduate from approved programs and have completed and maintained such certification may use the credentials PA-C (certified).

When you go to see a PA, what do you call them? PAs aren’t doctors, so most would prefer to be called by their names, but to be sure, ask either the nurse or the PA himself.

I hope this has cleared up the mystery of what a PA is!