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What is a Physician Assistant?

A Physician Assistant (PA) is a healthcare professional who is trained and licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician.

A Physician Assistant is concerned with preventing, maintaining, and treating human illness and injury by providing a broad range of health care services that were traditionally performed by a physician. Physician Assistants conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, give medical orders and write prescriptions.

Physician assistants work in hospitals, clinics and other types of health facilities, and exercise autonomy in medical decision making as determined by their supervising physician. A Bachelor's degree, often Master's degree, and clinical internship precede obtaining a license to practice as a Physician Assistant. Renewal of licensure is necessary every few years, varying by state. They are educated in the medical model designed to complement physician training, rather than in the nursing model. Physician assistants are not to be confused with medical assistants, who perform administrative and simple clinical tasks with limited postsecondary education under the direct supervision of physicians and other health professionals.  In the United States,  the profession is represented by the American Academy of Physician Assistants..

As of October 2011, there were 156 accredited PA programs in the United States. The majority are graduate degree programs leading to the award of master's degrees in either Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS). Health Science (MHS)., or Medical Science  (MMsc). and require a bachelor's degree and GRE or MCAT scores for entry. Some PA programs are starting to offer a clinical doctorate degree (Doctor of Science Physician Assistant or DScPA)Professional licensure is regulated by the medical boards of the individual states. Some PAs go on to pursue doctorate degrees in healthcare related fields.

Physician assistant education is based on the medical model] although unlike medical school which lasts four years plus a specialty-specific residency, PA training is usually 2 to 3 years in duration, completed during undergraduate education or post-graduate studies, for a total of 4–7 years of postsecondary education. However, most PA students start their medical education with a background of health care experience. The didactic training of PA education consists of classroom and laboratory instruction in medical and behavioral sciences, such as anatomy, microbiology, pharmacology, pathophysiology, hematology, pathology, clinical medicine, and physical diagnosis, followed by clinical rotations in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and geriatric medicine, as well as elective rotations. Many PA schools do not differentiate between the first year PA students and first year medical students, and their classes are taken together. Unlike physicians, who must complete a minimum of three years of residency after completion of medical school, PAs are not required to complete such residencies. Despite this, there are "residency" programs in certain specialties for PAs who choose to continue formal education in such a format.

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A physician assistant may use the post-nominal initials "PA", "PA-C", "APA-C", "RPA" or "RPA-C", where the "-C" indicates "Certified" and the "R" indicates "Registered". The "R" designation is unique to a few states, mainly in the Northeast The "A" indicates completion of the Army Flight Surgeon Course. Most PAs use "PA-C". During training, PA students are designated PA-S. The use of "PA-C" is limited only to those PAs currently certified and in compliance with the regulations of the national certifying organization, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

A graduate from an accredited PA program must pass the NCCPA-administered Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) before becoming a PA-C; this certification is required for licensure in all states.  In addition, a PA must earn and log 100 Continuing Medical Education (CME) hours and reregister his or her certificate with the NCCPA every two years. Every six years, a PA must also recertify by successfully completing the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE).



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