Definition of Physician assistant (PA)

Physician assistant (PA): A physician assistant (PA) is a mid-level medical practitioner who works under the supervision of a licensed doctor (an MD) or osteopathic physician (a DO).

The physician assistant came about in the 1960s as a response to the need for more clinicians and better access to health care. The first PA program was developed by Dr. Eugene Stead, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Duke University, to train PAs for rural areas with dwindling numbers of physicians and nurses.

Today the term "physician assistant" has a more precise definition as it applies to the mid-level practitioner who is able to practice medicine under the auspices of a licensed physician. Although the physician need not be present during the time the PA performs his or her duties, there must be a method of contact between the supervising physician and the PA at all times. The PA must be competent in the duties he or she is performing and the physician for whom the PA is working must also be licensed and trained to perform the relevant duties.

Examples of the duties of a general PA include:

  • Medical histories and physical examinations:
  • Laboratory tests: a PA can order any test which he or she is competent to interpret and provide the appropriate treatment.
  • Follow-up: PAs follow patients through their hospital course, their course of treatment in a clinic setting, etc.

PAs can practice in virtually all medical and surgical specialties, provided they are properly trained and supervised. Thus, PAs can assist in surgeries.

A PA must have at least a bachelor's degree. Although there is not yet a requirement to hold a degree beyond the bachelor's level, the current trend is for PAs to have a master's degree.

PA training programs are accredited by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Each state in the U.S. has its own specific licensing and practicing restrictions for PAs. Most states require PAs to pass the certification examination of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

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