A common question we hear from patients is "what does a physician assistant do"? We asked both of our PAs to help us answer this question (as well as some others).
What is a physician assistant?
At its simplest, a physician assistant is a mid-level practitioner who works as part of a team to provide healthcare to patients. Physician assistants always work under a supervising physician.
What sort of training do physician assistants receive?
Physician assistants (PAs) typically hold a Master's degree. Their training parallels traditional medical training, but at a more accelerated pace. MacDonald says, "We obtain training across a variety of different settings and gain knowledge and expertise in all major areas of medicine. In order to practice medicine, a PA must be trained by an accredited program, pass a national certifying exam, and obtain individual state licensure."
Robbins adds, "In order to maintain our license, a physician assistant is required to complete continuing education credits every two years as well as take a recertifying exam every 10 years."
What are some of patients' biggest misconceptions regarding PAs?
Remember, physician assistants are not medical doctors. That tends to be the biggest misconception. Robbins says, "Many patients think I am a doctor. I often have to correct them. They get confused about how to address me, and usually wind up calling me Dr. Donna."
Don't confuse PAs with medical assistants (MAs), either. The person who typically greets you, weighs you, and takes your vitals—he or she is a medical assistant.
Can a PA prescribe medication?
Yes, physician assistants have training in pharmacology and often hold the same prescribing rights as their supervising physician.
Can a PA do surgery?
Physician assistants are trained according to the medical model; therefore, they receive training in every area of medicine, including surgery. The role of a PA varies widely depending on the setting. Some physician assistants perform minor invasive procedures, such as suturing, catheterization, and IVs, while others have the responsibility of first assist in the operating room. PAs are often responsible for vein harvesting and closing surgical wounds. Note: a physician assistant cannot perform surgery alone.
MacDonald says, "I specialized in cardiothoracic surgery where my role was to assist during open heart surgeries, such as valve replacements and coronary artery bypass grafts."
Robbins adds, "I usually assist in the OR about five times a year. It is interesting, and I’m fortunate to be able to experience this side of medicine in addition to the outpatient setting."
Why become a physician assistant as opposed to an MD?
While every physician assistant will have his or her own personal story, we asked our PAs to share insight into their journeys.
Robbins says, "I always wanted a career in medicine. The primary reason I decided on PA vs MD was lifestyle. As a PA, I have much more flexibility with my schedule. I work part time, and I am able to balance a challenging career with raising a family. Becoming a PA was the best career path for me. I really enjoy providing healthcare and following my patients' progress over time. Some of my patients I have known now for 10 years."
MacDonald adds, "I have always loved medicine and was drawn to the idea of practicing across a wide variety of specialties as opposed to being limited to just one area of medicine."
What’s the most important thing that patients should understand about PAs?
Both of our PAs echoed the fact that physician assistants do not work in a vacuum. MacDonald says, "We work with a supervising physician under close communication."
That said, PAs do have quite a bit of autonomy. Robbins explains, "PAs can do a lot of their job independently. But patients need to know that the doctors do oversee our work and we often consult them about plan of care."
Watch: What is a Physician Assistant?