What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants are integral members of the health care team in many hospitals and clinical practices. The role of the physician assistant (PA) is to practice medicine under the direction and supervision of a licensed physician.

How did the physician assistant profession begin?

The first PAs began training in 1967 at Duke University in North Carolina. The program began to assist Vietnam veterans who had served as medics. It allowed them to transition into civilian life by gaining credentials to use their training and extraordinary experience.

Overtime, the number of PAs (as military corpsman) has grown. Today, a master’s degree is required as entry-level education. There are now sophisticated, standardized education and certification processes in place. Programs must gain accreditation by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

What do physician assistants do?

Working interdependently with physicians, PAs provide diagnostic and therapeutic patient care in virtually all medical specialties and settings. They take patient histories, perform physical examinations, order laboratory and diagnostic studies, prescribe medications, and develop patient treatment plans. Their job descriptions are as diverse as those of their supervising physicians, and include clinical practice, patient education, team leadership, medical education, health administration, and research.

Is there a need for physician assistants?

With implementation of the Affordable Care Act, further mandated reductions in resident training hours, and a widening shortage of primary care clinicians, new opportunities are arising for PAs in primary care and nearly every other field. The 34% growth since 2006 reflects the fact PAs are becoming an attractive and economical alternative to physicians. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor projects an additional 39% growth in the need for PAs in the next 10 years.

Where do physician assistants practice?

PAs have opportunities in a wide variety of specialties. These range from Primary Care to Surgery. See the list below of some additional specialties:

Type Specialty
Traditional Practices Hospital-Based
  • Internal Medicine
  • Primary Care
  • Family Medicine
  • Residency Support
  • Hospitalist
  • Rapid Response Teams
Subspecialties Non-Traditional Practices
  • Surgery
  • Pediatrics
  • Women's Health
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Plastic Surgery
  • Transplant
  • Neurosurgery
  • Critical Care Medicine

How do I become a physician assistant?

As the need for PAs continues to increase, more programs are opening up across the country. However, with the strong emphasis on clinically-based training and the need to prepare students to begin patient care immediately following graduation, medical schools are uniquely qualified to train physician assistants. The program at Tufts University is based in the long-established Tufts University School of Medicine. This opens up doors for collaboration with medical students and faculty, creating a unique experience.

While our PA students come from many backgrounds, they share a commitment to medicine and the PA profession. Their strong academic background has helped them prepare for the fast-paced curriculum of PA school. They have taken the prerequisite courses and learned about the medical field during their direct patient care experiences. Many have even worked for several years after obtaining their undergraduate degrees. 

Becoming a physician assistant takes dedication. A physician assistant student is:

  • Motivated
  • A self-starter
  • Able to prioritize 
  • Focused
  • Compassionate and committed
  • Able to cope with stress 
  • Persistent
  • Flexible
  • Able to collaborate
  • A critical thinker
  • Mature

  • American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA)

    • Year Founded: 1968
    • Mission: “AAPA leads the profession and empowers members to advance their careers and enhance patient health.”
    • Values: Leadership & Service, Unity & Teamwork, Accountability & Transparency, Excellence & Quality
    • Hosts annual AAPA Conference: May
    • PA Week: October 6-12
    • Websitehttp://www.aapa.org/

    Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA)

    • Year Founded: 1972
    • Mission: “PAEA’s mission is to pursue excellence, foster faculty development, advance the body of knowledge that defines quality education and patient-centered care, and promote diversity in all aspects of physician assistant education.”
    • Values: Collegiality, Scholarship, Excellence, Service, Diversity, Ethical Behavior, Integrity, Respect
    • Websitehttp://www.paeaonline.org

    National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)

    • Year Founded: 1974
    • Mission: “To serve the public through exemplary programs that evaluate critical PA competencies and that require the pursuit of life-long learning and improvement.”
    • Vision: “To transform the delivery quality of healthcare by certifying qualified Pas through programs that improve patient care while exemplifying a commitment to excellence unparalleled among certifying organizations.”
    • Helps students take the PANCE exam upon completion of program
    • Websitehttp://www.nccpa.net/

    Massachusetts Board of Registration of Physician Assistants

    Physician Assistant History Society

    • About: The PA History Society is dedicated to the history and legacy of the physician assistant profession through the identification and collection of appropriate papers, manuscripts, magazine and newspaper clippings, newsletters, reports, dissertations, oral histories, and visual artifacts, such as films, slides, videos, photographs, and digital images.
    • Websitehttp://www.pahx.org


    Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc.