What Do Physician Assistants Do? More Than You Think

Posted By: Paul   |   Physician Assistant Specialties   |   15 Comments

What Do Physician Assistants Do?What do physician assistants do

Are you considering applying to physician assistant schools but you can’t answer your friends or family when they ask you “What do physician assistants do?”  It’s understandable – the profession is young, and even though it’s growing rapidly, you may not have been treated by a physician assistant before.   So what types of activities do the different kinds of physician assistants do?

Here’s a Partial List of What Physician Assistants Do:

  • Primary Care. Primary care refers to working as the first contact for those who need help with health related problems and preventive care. Physician assistants in primary care do physical exams, see patients who are sick with everyday illnesses (viruses, diabetes, high blood pressure, rashes, etc.), and provide ongoing care. They order tests, make diagnoses, and prescribe medications, and usually work in a doctor’s office or a health clinic. Primary care is the most common work area for PAs, particularly since its demand is high, and the supply of primary care physicians is high.
  • Surgery. Physician assistants are the first assistants in surgery, even before other surgeons. Surgical PAs usually perform certain surgical procedures on their own, such as putting in chest tubes, cutting and draining abscesses, as well as working as a part of a the surgeon/anesthesiologist/nursing team.
  • Emergency. Physician assistants in the emergency room are used to see patients who are generally more stable, who need simple and straightforward (“Fast-track”), and perform procedures like suturing and wound care, treating colds and other infections, sprains/strains, medication refills, rashes, etc.) Depending on the hospital, PAs may also do more advanced procedures, like putting in breathing tubes, surgical drainage tubes, starting central IV lines, and treating major emergencies as part of a doctor/nurse/PA team.
  • Orthopedics. Aside from assisting a doctor with surgeries on broken hips and other bones as above, orthopedic PAs help reduce dislocated bones, make and remove casts, and perform live imaging procedures like fluoroscopy.
  • Psychiatry. Mental health work involves interviewing patients who are in mental distress, are suicidal, depressed, or suffering from dementia. Prescribing medications and giving “depot” shots of long-term medications to patients with major mental illnesses.
  • Hospital care. Physician assistants in the hospital may work as “hospitalists,” which means they are responsible for evaluating and treating patients who have been admitted to the hospital. These patients are generally quite ill and require close monitoring often serious and complex ailments, and usually require extensive care.

For all of these specialties, physician assistants answer to a licensed physician who is either on the premises or reachable by phone. The physician need not be in the room actually watching what a physician assistant does, but they must be available for consultation if the PA needs it. If a particular patient has a complex or challenging problem, the physician may choose to get involved, check in with the PA, or even take the patient off the PA’s hands. If seeing patients on your own makes you nervous, you should know that an important part of physician assistant education is learning when to get the supervising physician involved.

There are many other specialties that use PAs, and the demand in all of these depends on the needs of the medical facility and the community in which it resides.   As an estimate, PAs can do about 80% of the work a physician does.

Clearly, if you enter this field, there are many possibilities.  So what do physician assistants do?

They do plenty.  🙂


  1. sebastian Moncaleano October 29, 2012 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the information, I am 21 years old and I’m at the point in life where I want to decide what to do with my life. I ‘m really thinking of becoming a PA with the hope of helping those who most need it. Although I am quite worry about the expenses, some how I know I will manage, It’s called faith.

  2. annonymous February 21, 2014 at 7:40 am - Reply

    how many years of college and clinics are required to get your degree?

    • Paul February 22, 2014 at 11:26 pm - Reply

      To become a PA you need at least an associates degree or (most of the time) a bachelor’s degree. You then go to PA school for 2-3 years (depending on the program).

      To be a competitive applicant for PA school, you would do well to have 2000-3000 hours of health care experience. It can be done with less, but more is always better.

  3. Pamela Chester July 29, 2014 at 8:38 pm - Reply

    I have a question. My husband’s biopsy of a place on his arm was squamous cell. The doctor surgeon did not do the surgery today, the PA did. The doctor never checked or looked. They advertise the Mohs surgical procedure but it seems the PA just cut and stitched. Is this now accepted for medical care? (Medicare and a gap policy)

    • Paul August 1, 2014 at 11:23 pm - Reply

      It sounds like your husband had a full thickness lesion excision, not a Mohs. The Mohs involves sequential shaves that are reviewed microscopically during the procedure and repeated until the tumor is gone. Did they have him sign an Informed Consent form? Such a form officially informs the patient of which procedure is to be performed, the inherent risks, etc.

      I would think there are PAs who perform these without supervision. In most cases the MD must review a certain percentage of the PA’s notes and sign off on them. Some MDs sign off on all notes to reduce the risk of a malpractice.

  4. rachel October 10, 2014 at 6:53 am - Reply

    How much schooling does being a PA involve?
    Masters ?

    • Paul November 2, 2014 at 2:28 pm - Reply

      The shortest programs are about 18 months, the longest are about 3 years. Most are 24-30 months. This does not include the time you spend taking the prerequisites. In most cases this will give you a Masters, but in some, a bachelors and/or certificate only.

  5. JM October 20, 2015 at 4:13 pm - Reply

    Is respiratory care really a good background for PA school? I read this online all the time. I work ER and ICU a lot so see some of the sickest patients come through.

    • Paul November 8, 2015 at 11:36 am - Reply

      I think RT is some of the best training for Pre-PAs. It dovetails nicely with cardiology, pulmonology, emergency medicine, infectious disease, and it will treat you valuable skills. Go for it!

  6. Nick January 12, 2016 at 7:53 pm - Reply

    I’m 18 years old and I’m thinking about becoming a PA. I was wondering, when you become a PA, do you have the opportunity to choose to work in any department? Or do you have to work in the hospital and in the surgery department?

    • Paul January 18, 2016 at 8:53 am - Reply

      No, where you work (and in what specialty) is totally up to you. If you want to be a dermatology PA, you take a job in a dermatology office, for example. There are no required “tracks.”

  7. Amy November 2, 2016 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Hello all,
    I am wondering, are all PA’s required to perform surgeries? Or only those in certain specialties?

    • Paul November 3, 2016 at 9:05 pm - Reply

      No. Only those who go into a surgical speciality. And then only with a surgeon. PAs are usually the first assist, even before another surgeon.

  8. Isabella November 6, 2016 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Hello, I am 17 and thinking about becoming a PA. I currently work at a skilled nursing facility and do admissions. I am also getting my CNA by May of next year. Is the work I’m doing considered good training for my future? Also, can PAs work in a skilled nursing facility? When I admit a patient/resident I only assign them to a doctor or NP.

    • Paul November 13, 2016 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      It’s a good start, Isabella. When you’re 17, jobs that will have you doing assessment and treatment are pretty much off the table. But your current job will teach you a lot about healthcare and should give you some connections that will enable you to get a more patient-care-centered job. CNA is ok/good experience, but I don’t recommend you spend all your time with it. You will also need some of what we call acute care experience. Acute care is — as opposed to CNA work, which is mostly maintaining people with chronic medical needs — about life and death. Emergency work would be a nice combination with your CNA work. Have you considered getting your EMT? There are other jobs — those in surgery, med/surg units in the hospital, etc. that will round things out. I think having a combination of acute and chronic care experience is ideal. Even better is acute + chronic + prevention, or acute + chronic + behavioral health. Behavioral health are is basically mental health. If you can’t tell, I think the strongest candidates have a breadth of different care experiences with patients. But you’re 17 — that will come in time. Also, make sure not to sacrifice your college grades for experience! Grades are more important than experience — they are permanent once you graduate, and a common mistake is doing a lot of health care experience (hey, it’s fun and interesting, right?) but having that get in the way of making great college grades. Once your college grades are in, you will have the freedom to do all kinds of healthcare work. So give it time, but keep doing what you’re doing until you get to college.



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