Knowing that PA school is intense and challenging, you may wonder what should be your first physician book.

Even if you haven’t started PA school, it’s not too early to start your reading for it.  For 10 or 15 bucks, you can get your first physician assistant book, and get the jump on some of the material you’ll be learning in PA school.  Think of it like your summer reading for that English class you took in high school – only a lot more interesting.

But how do know that any particular book will be used at your PA school?  The answer is simple: pick the bible.

first physician assistant book

Palpating the liver

The Bates Guide To Physical Examination and History Taking

The Bates guide was written by Barbara Bates, MD and published in 1974, and is now considered the bible for learning physical examination skills.  It is used nearly universally by first-year PA students and first-year medical students  in the United States.  The newest edition (the 10th) is written by Lynn S. Bickley, MD, and retails for about $90 on, but if you’re smart, you’ll purchase an older and/or used edition for much less.  I purchased the 9th edition on eBay for $10, and I’ve never regretted it!  Physical examination skills don’t change very rapidly, so you would probably be fine with one as old as the fifth edition.

Why is this the best choice to by your first physician assistant book?

  1. Almost all PA schools and medical schools use it, so it’s a safe bet
  2. It covers the skills involved with interviewing and examining patients in an approachable way
  3. It has great pictures of common ailments and specific physical exam tests for them
  4. For those who are EMTs/paramedics/nurses/CNAs, etc., this book is rich with information that will help you get more out of you patient interactions right now.

The book is roughly organized by the anatomical systems and body areas to be examined (cardiovascular, abdomen, neurological, etc.)  Each section first presents the steps to effectively examine the system, then briefly lists the most common abnormal findings in red text in the right margin, along with what they indicate. It doesn’t go into the pathophysiology or treatment aspects, but that’s not its purpose.

first physician assistant book

Examinging the heart

I love the Bates guide, and still refer to it.  I wish I had owned it when I was working on an ambulance as an EMT because it provides more depth than the EMT texts.  For example, the Bates guide describes different breathing patterns and breath sounds, along with what illnesses they often represent.

If you’re looking to read ahead for PA school, or delve into your first real medicine just for fun, you can’ t lose by making the Bates guide your first physician assistant book*.



*If you prefer, you can get pieces of the book on video at  These videos show the examination skills, but don’t get into abnormal findings much.