The Role of the Modern Physician Assistant

A shortage of physicians in the healthcare marketplace is likely to result in increased demand for physician assistants over the next few years. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistant positions are projected to increase by nearly 40 percent between 2012 and 2022. Much like nurse practitioners, physician assistants can prescribe medications and can treat patients for most minor illnesses and injuries. By assuming some of the workload traditionally reserved for doctors, physician assistants can improve the quality of care and reduce wait times for patients in the clinical, hospital and private practice environments.

Educational Requirements

Physician assistants must complete both a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field and a specific accredited course of study leading to a Master of Arts in the physician assistant field. Most master’s level programs require two years of intensive study. Subjects studied may include some or all of the following:

  • Physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical diagnostic methods
  • Pathology
  • Anatomy
  • Clinical medicine


Most physician assistant master’s degree programs also require students to spend extensive time in the clinical environment to practice the skills learned in class. Upon completion of the degree program, students must successfully complete the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination to achieve licensure. This test is designed and administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants and is required in all states as well as in the District of Columbia. Additional certifications or examinations may also be required by some states.

Duties of a Physician Assistant

Most physician assistants perform their duties as part of a team in a private practice. Their duties may include some or all of the following activities:

  • Diagnosing and prioritizing patients during the intake process
  • Reviewing medical histories and records and making notations on those records
  • Performing general physical examinations
  • Providing basic treatments for common ailments and injuries
  • Ordering further testing or laboratory procedures to aid in accurate diagnosis
  • Educating patients and their families regarding specific medical conditions and providing general health advice
  • Prescribing medications as needed for their patients
  • Assisting in surgical procedures and providing pre- and post-operation treatments and care

In some states, physician assistants may offer limited treatments only and may be required to submit any prescriptions or other treatments to a supervisory physician for final approval. Some states allow physician assistants to serve as primary care providers, especially in areas without easy access to the services of a medical doctor. Physician assistants may be stationed in these areas and may consult with doctors via telephone to ensure that they are following the correct treatment regimen for each of their patients.

As ongoing physician shortages continue to impact the availability and quality of care patients receive, the role of physician assistants is likely to expand to include regular well-child check-ups and other examinations usually performed by primary care physicians. The advanced training received by physician assistants will allow these professional healthcare providers to substitute for doctors in hospitals and private practices and will create new opportunities and challenges in the modern clinical environment.