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What’s Involved in a Career as a Physician’s Assistant?

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 5/5/2009

Physician's assistants can take on many of the tasks of a fully qualified doctor, and can have a very varied job description. This career is ideal for someone who wants to work in medicine without spending many years completing their education.

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    What is a Physician’s Assistant?

    A physician’s assistant works as part of a healthcare team which may include doctors or surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare workers. They can perform many of the tasks that a physician can, but with rare exceptions, they must be under the direct supervision of a doctor at all times.

    Essentially, the role of the physician’s assistant provides physicians with a less expensive option when they need someone to share the workload of a busy office. The assistant can take on up to 75% of the tasks of a physician, allowing the doctor more time for the other 25% of the workload, and allowing the physician to effectively cope with a much greater workload than they would otherwise be able to.

    In the course of a typical day working in a physician’s office, the assistant might find meet with patients to take medical histories, diagnose and treat minor injuries, and discuss medical issues, order and interpret laboratory test results, and write prescriptions. They may also work on administrative tasks such as billing and record-keeping.

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    Skills, Education, and Training

    A physician’s assistant should have very good interpersonal and communication skills, and be able to interact effectively with people from many different cultural, social, and economic backgrounds. Good judgment, attention to detail, and the ability to work both independently and a team are all important skills too.

    To train as a physician’s assistant requires completion of at least a two-year course. In addition, two years of college education in the basic sciences is required for entry into most physician’s assistant programs. In addition to this formal training, candidates must pass an initial licensing exam and then resit the exam every two years to retain their certification. These are requirements across the entire U.S., but requirements typically vary somewhat in other countries.

    The assistant may choose to specialize in one of a number of areas, including pediatric medicine, internal medicine, family medicine, and preoperative care. The specialty they choose may dictate where they work. For example, a candidate who specializes in preoperative care is more likely to work in a hospital or private surgical clinic, while someone who specializes in family medicine will probably work in a general practitioner’s office.

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    Physician’s Assistant Information at the Department of Labor

    The American Academy of Physician’s Assistants

    Physician’s Assistant FAQ at the CA Department of Consumer Affairs