What is a PA?

Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision.  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 make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes.  Physician Assistants are allowed to practice and prescribe medications in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

How did the Physician Assistant profession begin? 

In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage and 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.

For more information about the history of the PA profession, visit the Physician Assistant History Society website.

How are PAs educated and trained?  

Physician Assistant education is modeled on the medical school curriculum, a combination of classroom and clinical instruction. The PA course of study is rigorous and intense. The average length of a PA education program is 27 months.

Admission to PA school is highly competitive. Applicants to PA programs must complete at least two years of college courses in basic science and behavioral science as prerequisites to PA school, analogous to premedical studies required of medical students. The majority of PA programs have the following prerequisites: chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and biology. Additionally, most PA programs require or prefer that applicants have prior healthcare experience.

PA education includes instruction in core sciences: anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, pathophysiology, microbiology, clinical laboratory science, behavioral science, and medical ethics.

PAs also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, physician offices, and acute or long-term care facilities. Rotations include family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, general surgery, emergency medicine and psychiatry.

Upon graduation, physician assistants take a national certification examination developed by the National Commission for Certification of Physician Assistants in conjunction with the National Board of Medical Examiners. Practicing PAs participate in lifelong learning. In order to maintain national certification, a PA must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years.  Graduation from an accredited physician assistant program and passage of the national certifying exam are required for state licensure.

There are currently 181 accredited PA programs in the United States. The vast majority award master’s degrees. PA education programs are represented by the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) and accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

What does “PA-C” stand for? What does the “C” mean? 

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 for Certification of Physician Assistants.  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 PAs (AAPA).

Can PAs prescribe medications? 

The fifty states, the District of Columbia and Guam have laws that authorize PA prescribing.

How do doctors and PAs work together? If there’s a PA in my practice group, can I request to be seen by the PA?

By design, physicians and PAs work together as a team, and all PAs practice medicine with physician supervision. Supervision does not mean, though, that a supervising physician must always be present with the PA or direct every aspect of PA-provided care.

PAs are trained and educated similarly to physicians, and therefore share similar diagnostic and therapeutic reasoning. Physician-PA practice can be described as delegated autonomy. Physicians delegate duties to PAs, and within those range of duties, PAs use autonomous decision-making for patient care. This team model is an efficient way to provide high-quality medical care. In rural areas, the PA may be the only healthcare provider on-site, collaborating with a physician elsewhere through telecommunication.

If there is a PA in your group practice, you can certainly request to be seen by him or her. PAs deliver high-quality care, and research shows that patients are just as satisfied with PA-provided care as they are with physician care.

What is the American Academy of PAs (AAPA)? 

The American Academy of PAs 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 charter 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 collection efforts 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, the Medical and Surgical Congresses, and the Association of PA Programs. Member projects and activities are assisted by the AAPA staff.  A calendar of upcoming AAPA events is available on their web site. Click here for more information about the AAPA.

What is the Physician Assistant Foundation? 

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 Physician Assistant Foundation here.

What is the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)

The NCCPA is the only certifying organization for PAs in the United States. Established as a not-for-profit organization in 1974, NCCPA provides certification programs that reflect standards for clinical knowledge, clinical reasoning and other medical skills and professional behaviors required upon entry into practice and throughout the careers of PAs.

Our Passion
Imbued with a strong sense of responsibility to assure that PAs meet professional standards of knowledge and skills, NCCPA strives to meet the needs of its stakeholders efficiently, effectively and honorably.

NCCA Accreditation
NCCPA has earned accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The NCCA is the accrediting arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). Established in 1977 as a nonprofit organization, ICE is a leader in setting quality standards for certifying organizations.

Learn more about the NCCPA here.

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