FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?
  2. What are the differences between PAs and physicians?
  3. How did the PA profession begin?
  4. What is the AAPA?
  5. What is the PA Foundation?
  6. How are PAs educated?
  7. What does the "C" stand for in "PA-C"?
  8. What do physicians think about PAs?
  9. In which areas of medicine can PAs work?
  10. Can PAs prescribe medications?


Q. What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?

A. Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. PAs employed by the federal government are credentialed to practice. As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, and in most states can write prescriptions. PAs are trained in intensive education programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Because of the close working relationship the PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in the medical model designed to complement physician training. Upon graduation, physician assistants take a national certification examination developed by the National Commission on Certification of PAs in conjunction with the National Board of Medical Examiners. To maintain their national certification, PAs must log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and sit for a recertification every six years. Graduation from an accredited physician assistant program and passage of the national certifying exam are required for state licensure.
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Q. What are the differences between PAs and physicians?

A. Physician assistants are educated in the "medical model." In some schools they attend many of the same classes as medical students. One of the main differences between PA education and physician education is not the core content of the curriculum, but the amount of time spent in formal education. In addition to time in school, physicians are required to do an internship, and the majority also complete a residency in a specialty following that. PAs do not have to undertake an internship or residency. A physician has complete responsibility for the care of the patient. PAs share that responsibility with the supervising physicians.
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Q. How did the PA profession begin?

A. In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized that there was a shortage and an uneven distribution of primary care physicians. To expand the delivery of quality medical care, Dr. Eugene Stead of the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He selected Navy corpsmen who received considerable medical training during their military service and during the war in Vietnam but who had no comparable civilian employment. He based the curriculum of the PA program in part on his knowledge of the fast-track training of doctors during World War II.
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Q. What is the AAPA?

A. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is the only national professional society to represent all physician assistants in every area of medicine. Founded in 1968, the academy has a federated structure of 57 chartered chapters representing PAs in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the federal services. AAPA's mission is to provide quality, cost-effective, and accessible health care as well as to support the professional and personal development of PAs. The AAPA pursues these goals through government relations and public education programs, research and data collectionefforts, and continuing education activities. The Academy's policies are set by the House of Delegates, which meets once a year, and implemented by the Board of Directors. The House of Delegates is made up of representatives from the chartered chapters, specialty organizations, the Student Academy, and the Association of PA Programs. Member projects and activities are assisted by the AAPA staff. A calendarof upcoming AAPA events is available on this Web site.
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Q. What is the PA Foundation?

A. As the philanthropic arm of the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the Physician Assistant Foundation's mission is to foster education and research that enhance the delivery of quality health care. Related to this mission are the Foundation's goals to increase the understanding of the physician assistant profession and to develop and promote philanthropic activities. Learn more about the PA Foundation.
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Q. How are PAs educated?

A. Physician assistants are educated in intensive medical programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The average PA program curriculum runs approximately 26 months. There are currently more than 130 accredited programs. All PA programs must meet the same ARC-PA standards. Because of the close working relationship PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in a medical model designed to complement physician training. PA students are taught, as are medical students, to diagnose and treat medical problems. Education consists of classroom and laboratory instruction in the basic medical and behavioral sciences (such as anatomy, pharmacology, pathophysiology, clinical medicine, and physical diagnosis), followed by clinical rotations in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and geriatric medicine. A PA's education does not stop after graduation, though. PAs are required to take ongoing continuing medical education classes and be retested on their clinical skills on a regular basis. A number of postgraduate PA programs have also been established to provide practicing PAs with advanced education in medical specialties.
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Q. What does the "C" stand for in "PA-C"?

A. Physician assistant-certified. It means that the person who holds the title has met the defined course of study and has undergone testing by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). The NCCPA is an independent organization, and the commissioners represent a number of different medical professions. It is not a part of the PA professional organization, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). To maintain that "C" after "PA", a physician assistant must log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and take the recertification exam every six years.
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Q. What do physicians think about PAs?

A. Most physicians who have worked with physician assistants like having PAs on staff. The American Medical Association, the American College of Surgeons, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Physicians, and other national medical organizations support the physician assistant profession by actively supporting the PA certifying commission and the PA program accrediting agency. Studies done by the Federal Government have shown that PAs, working with the supervision of physicians, provide care that is comparable to physician care. The Eighth Report to the President and Congress on the Status of Health Personnel in the United States (released in 1992) states, "Physician assistants have demonstrated their clinical effectiveness both in terms of quality of care and patient acceptance."
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Q. In which areas of medicine can PAs work?

A. Physician assistants (PAs) are found in all areas of medicine. They practice in the areas of primary care medicine that is family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology as well in surgery and the surgical subspecialties. Physician assistants receive a broad education in medicine. Their education is ongoing after graduation through continuing medical education requirements and continual interaction with physicians and other health care providers.
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Q. Can PAs prescribe medications?

A.? All fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Guam have enacted laws that authorize PA prescribing. In California, PA prescriptions are referred to as written prescription transmittal orders.
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