Are you considering applying to physician assistant schools but are unsure about just what you’ll be able to do as a physician assistant? It’s understandable – the profession is young, and even though it’s growing rapidly, you may not have even 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:

  • 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 generally accessible on the premises. The doctor need not be in the room actually watching what a physician assistant does, but they must be available for consultation if the PA requests 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.  If you’re like most of  my classmates, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much physician assistants can actually do!

  • sebastian Moncaleano October 29, 2012, 5:50 pm

    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.

  • annonymous February 21, 2014, 7:40 am

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

    • Paul February 22, 2014, 11:26 pm

      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.

  • Pamela Chester July 29, 2014, 8:38 pm

    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, 11:23 pm

      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.

  • rachel October 10, 2014, 6:53 am

    How much schooling does being a PA involve?
    Masters ?

    • Paul November 2, 2014, 2:28 pm

      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.

  • JM October 20, 2015, 4:13 pm

    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, 11:36 am

      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!

  • Nick January 12, 2016, 7:53 pm

    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, 8:53 am

      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.”


Leave a Comment