What is a Physician Assistant?
Physician assistants (PAs) are health professionals licensed to practice medicine with the supervision of a physician. Physician assistants work in a variety of practice settings including hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and research centers.
PAs are qualified to take medical histories, examine patients, order and administer tests, make diagnoses, treat illnesses, and assist in surgery. They are trained to provide care that otherwise would be administered by a physician.
Physician assistants can provide care as generalists in primary care situations, or in subspecialty areas of medicine. Common specialties in which PAs practice include family practice, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, surgery, and pediatrics.
Education Programs for PAs began in the mid-1960s to help offset a shortage of doctors. Many of the first PAs were former military medical corpsmen who wanted to use their training and continue in the medical field. Now there are over 130 PA education programs in a variety of academic and clinical institutions. PAs have become vital to bringing health care to underserved areas, such as rural communities, and enhancing efficiency in nearly every health care setting.
In 1973 there were fewer than 1,500 practicing PAs. Today there are more than 66,000 PAs working across the United States. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of Physician Assistants is expected to grow 27% from 2006-2016, considerably faster than the national average for all occupations.
What is the difference between a PA and a NP?
If you are the patient being cared for by either a PA or nurse practitioner (NP) and can't see your provider's name tag, you probably can't tell the difference. In any given practice setting the care provided will likely be indistinguishable based purely on the profession of the provider. Philosophically though, the approach each of these two professions takes in the care they provide their patients is different. NPs describe themselves as advanced practitioners of nursing, while PAs practice medicine with physician supervision. There is also some difference in specialty mobility. NPs are trained in only one specialty (e.g. Family NP, Pediatric NP, Geriatric NP) and usually require additional formal training in order to move from one specialty to another. PAs are trained in a broad-based, primary care curriculum that allows mobility between specialties, typically with on-the-job training.