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What it Means to Have an Appointment with a Physician Assistant

In medical terms, a PA or physician assistant, refers to a specific type of a licensed medical provider. This role, established in 1967, continues to grow and is a viable alternative to visiting a physician.

Q: What is a PA and what do they do?

PAs are licensed medical professionals who are able to diagnose illnesses, formulate treatment plans and prescribe medications. Their specific duties include: taking medical histories and performing exams; ordering and interpreting tests; performing procedures and assisting with surgeries; evaluating patients in hospitals and nursing homes; and doing clinical research. PAs can also counsel and provide preventative care to patients. They are an important part of the medical team and because of this they often become a patient’s primary healthcare provider. Since a PA’s education follows that of the medical school model, a PA graduates with a broad knowledge of medicine and has the ability to practice in any specialty. They can practice in every state, as well as the District of Columbia and many U.S. territories.

Q: This sounds like everything a physician (doctor) does. What’s the difference? Can I just see a PA and not a physician?


In terms of clinical practice, a PA and physician are able to do the same thing. Both are able to diagnose, treat, prescribe and educate. However, a PA’s prescribing rights, especially when dealing with controlled substances, are not the same. This is mandated by the State Medical Board in which the PA practices. It is also dictated to some extent by the PA’s supervising physician. Since the PA profession was founded on teamwork, a PA can never practice independently. In terms of training, both types of providers graduate with a well-rounded education. PA students complete a year of clinical rotations in many specialties, whereas medical students complete four years of didactic training mixed with clinical experience followed by a residency program (minimum of three years) in their field of interest. While the length of a PA’s training is less than a physician’s, it is still quite rigorous. The similarities between a PA and physician allow them to work in tandem. If you want to see only a PA that is quite acceptable. The beauty of this well-founded relationship is that the PA always has the opportunity to consult with his/her supervising physician to ensure that you are being treated appropriately.

Q: Where do PAs work?

PAs work in many types of environments, including private medical practices, community health centers, hospitals, nursing homes, retail clinics, research and educational facilities and correctional institutions. PAs practice in both rural and urban settings.

Q: What is a PA’s education?

Currently, most PAs are educated at the master’s level. The admission process is extremely competitive and all master level PA programs require a bachelor’s degree and completion of basic science courses prior to entry. Most programs also require a certain number of direct patient care hours prior to being admitted. Some students will obtain these hours by working as a medical assistant, a certified nursing assistant, an EMT, an athletic trainer, etc. Once a student is admitted, the curriculum is split between a didactic phase in which the student takes basic medical, pharmaceutical, behavioral science and ethics courses and a clinical phase in which the student completes at least a year of clinical rotations in many medical specialties. PA programs typically take 24-27 consecutive months to complete. Certified PAs are committed to a life of ongoing education. They are required to complete 100 hours of CME every 2 years and must re-certify by taking a national board exam every 10 years. Once certified, a PA’s title becomes PA-C.

Q: What is the relationship between a PA and a physician?

Since the birth of the PA profession, PAs have been dedicated to teamwork and building strong relationships with physicians and other healthcare professionals. Most states require PAs to have a written agreement with a specific physician, also known as a supervising physician, in order to practice medicine. The role of the supervising physician is to guide the PA while simultaneously giving the PA a certain level of autonomy. In some settings, PAs and physicians share a panel of patients while in others both have their own panel. This relationship works well because of the similarities in training. Even though PAs work closely with physicians, they should not be confused with one. Legally, PAs can not and should not be called doctors or physicians.

So, if you have an appointment with a PA, you can rest assured that you will receive top-quality medical care by a licensed professional. The value in seeing a PA is that a PA’s training is comprehensive, which allows the PA to provide a wide range of patient care in one setting. PAs are skilled at managing chronic conditions, acute illnesses and providing preventive care. Because of their adaptability, extensive training and emphasis on high quality care, PAs have become an integral part of the medical team and help to improve access to care where and when it is needed most. FBN

By Karen Damgaard, PA-C

Karen Damgaard, PA-C, is a physician assistant at Flagstaff Family Care Clinic, 1501 Yale Street, Bldg 2, Suite 2. Flagstaff Family Care has offices in Flagstaff and Sedona. For more information, call 928-527-4325 or visit FlagFamilyCare.com.

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