How to Become a Physician Assistant
Physician assistants must be able to communicate medical issues in a way that patients understand.
Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Applicants to these programs typically have a bachelor's degree and experience caring directly for patients. All states require physician assistants to be licensed.
Applicants to physician assistant education programs typically have a bachelor’s degree and some experience with patient care. Although programs vary, most require applicants to have taken undergraduate coursework with a focus in science. Bachelor's degrees are often in healthcare or a related field, such as biology. Programs also may require that applicants have experience as a medical assistant, EMT or paramedic, or another occupation that involves patient care.
Physician assistant education programs usually take at least 2 years of postbaccalaureate study. A list of accredited physician assistant programs is available from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA).
Physician assistant education includes classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects such as human anatomy, clinical medicine, and pharmacology. The programs also include supervised clinical training in several specialties, such as family medicine, internal medicine, and emergency medicine.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A physician assistant who passes the exam may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”
To maintain their PA-C certification, physician assistants must complete continuing education and pass a recertification exam within a specified number of years.
In most states, laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. Although the physician does not need to be onsite at all times, collaboration between physicians and physician assistants is required for practice.
Physician assistant positions may require basic life support (BLS) certification.
Some physician assistants pursue additional education in a specialty. Postgraduate programs are available in specialties such as emergency medicine and psychiatry. To enter one of these programs, a physician assistant must be a graduate of an accredited program and have their PA-C. Additional certification in specialty areas is offered by the NCCPA.
Communication skills. Physician assistants must explain complex medical issues in a way that patients can understand.
Compassion. Physician assistants deal with patients who are sick or injured and who may be in extreme pain or distress. They must be sympathetic toward and understanding of patients and their families.
Detail oriented. Physician assistants should be observant and have a strong ability to focus when evaluating and treating patients.
Emotional stability. Physician assistants, particularly those working in surgery or emergency medicine, should work well under pressure. They must remain calm in stressful situations in order to provide quality care.
Interpersonal skills. Physician assistants must work well as part of a team of other healthcare professionals to ensure proper patient care.
Problem-solving skills. Physician assistants need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They must be diligent when investigating complicated medical issues so they can determine the best course of treatment for each patient.