Physician assistant takes a break at work

What is a Physician Assistant?

Pretty much everyone knows that a doctor is professionally trained to diagnose injuries, perform medical examinations, and perform medical surgeries when appropriate, and a nurse is a medical aid who assists doctors but is not licensed to write prescriptions or lead surgeries. However, there is a third medical professional: a physician assistant, whose licensing falls somewhere in-between a doctor and a nurse. Physician assistants are medical professionals who diagnose illnesses and injuries, perform examinations, and even write prescriptions. However, a physician assistant always works under a licensed doctor and is not permitted to perform surgeries on patients.

So what are physician assistants licensed to do and how are their training and skills different from those of doctors? Physician assistants are licensed to perform many tasks. They can conduct physical examinations on patients and order diagnostic tests like x-rays or blood tests, make diagnoses and counsel patients on treatments and care, give treatments like immunizations, or set broken bones. They can also prescribe medicine to patients, record and manage patient medical histories, and promote health and wellness through outreach programs.

All of those capabilities sound a lot like the function of a doctor, but there are a few key differences. Medical doctors, for instance, are trained to be able to perform surgeries on patients, while physician assistants are only allowed to assist in surgeries. Physician assistants also must always work under a trained medical doctor. This fact means that even if physician assistants are the primary-care provider for a patient, they must work in conjunction with a licensed medical doctor to work in the practice.

The primary difference between a doctor and a physician assistant is the extent of their respective medical training. While both occupations require a bachelor’s degree and additional postgraduate education, doctors are subject to medical school, a one-year residency, and additional years of specialty training. Physician assistants, on the other hand, typically only go through about two years of postgraduate medical training, which is the key reason they are not licensed to perform surgery.

The great thing about being a physician assistant is that you are able to work in the same settings as doctors with less required training. Physician assistants work in hospitals, but they also work in family practices, psychiatric services, and outpatient services. If you’re interested in working within the medical field but aren’t interested in going through as much medical training as doctors, then being a physician assistant may be the career for you!

Last Updated: June 26, 2015