What is a PA?

(& other frequently asked questions)

PA Definition

PAs are healthcare professionals trained & licensed to practice medicine.  They are able to prescribe medication, diagnose & treat medical conditions, see patients in clinics, hospitals, and assist in surgery.

The PA training curriculum was developed due to a shortage of medical providers by Dr. Eugene A. Stead at Duke University Medical Center in 1965.  He based it on the fast-track training of doctors during World War II.  The aim of training physician assistants is to "extend the arms and brains of the physician so he [or she] can care for more people."

How is a PA different from a doctor or nurse practitioner (NP)?


It's best to think about how we are all alike:

*we ALL practice medicine

*we ALL have to be trained in medicine

*we ALL learned (& continue to learn) medicine from our senior colleagues (attending physicians, chief residents, charge nurses, senior techs, senior PAs, etc.)

*we ALL undergo testing and accreditation by boards at the state and national levels in order to be able to practice.

It is common to have doctors, NPs and PAs within the same department taking shifts.  

Every journey to this point is a little different in terms of paperwork, curriculum structure and duration, but the goal remains: become a competent healthcare provider.



Briefly- no matter what your degree is, the practice of medicine requires apprenticeship with close supervision during the first 5-10 years of practice after graduation.

MDs have a supervising physician during the first 3-7 years of practice out of medical school which is known as a residency program.  In order to practice specialties and subspecialties, they require yet another 2+ years of training under yet another supervising physician.

The main difference is that PAs are required to have a supervising physician for the length of their career.  The PA training curriculum developed by Dr. Eugene A. Stead at Duke University Medical Center in 1965 was based on the fast-track training of doctors during World War II.  


In a similar fashion,

What is a supervising physician?

As mentioned above, physician assistants are trained using a fast track medical school model.  Once doctors graduate from medical school, they are not immediately released to practice on their own.

Does the supervising physician have to be physically with you?


Just like in any apprenticeship, the master craftsperson can/will allow for more distance depending on the situation.  Every PA/physician relationship is different.  Brand new baby PAs (doctors & NPs) are closely monitored by their more experienced counterparts.  This is obviously different from a PA who has been in practice 5, 10, 15+ years.  In fact, the profession is now old enough that it has come full circle:  Experienced PAs help to train doctors.

The official definition of "supervision" varies by state, but ultimately, it means that the doc is available somehow in case the PA needs help.  The doctor does NOT have to be physically present.  It's worth remembering that the best practitioners know their limitations and know when to ask for help regardless of the letters after their name. 



Resources from the AAPA website:

For more information, please visit the American Academy of Physician Assistants website

PA Fact Sheet

PAs & NPs

PA Infographic