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Frequently Asked Questions

Interested in a career as a Physician Assistant? Curious about educational requirements, certifications and job prospects?

Our Frequently Asked Questions list is designed to address the most common questions received on becoming a Physician Assistant. Have a question not listed? Feel free to contact our office.

What is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants (PAs) are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. PAs employed by the federal government are credentialed to practice. As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, and in virtually all states can write prescriptions. Within the physician-PA relationship, physician assistants exercise autonomy in medical decision making and provide a broad range of diagnostic and therapeutic services. A PA's practice may also include education, research, and administrative services.

PAs are trained in intensive education programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

Because of the close working relationship the PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in the medical model designed to complement physician training. Upon graduation, physician assistants take a national certification examination developed by the National Commission on Certification of PAs in conjunction with the National Board of Medical Examiners. To maintain their national certification, PAs must log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and sit for a recertification every six years. Graduation from an accredited physician assistant program and passage of the national certifying exam are required for state licensure.

How did the Physician Assistant profession begin?

In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage and uneven distribution of primary care physicians. To expand the delivery of quality medical care, Dr. Eugene Stead of the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He selected Navy corpsmen who received considerable medical training during their military service and during the war in Vietnam but who had no comparable civilian employment. He based the curriculum of the PA program in part on his knowledge of the fast-track training of doctors during World War II.

What Does "PA-C" stand for? What does the C mean?

Physician assistant-certified. It means that the person who holds the title has met the defined course of study and has undergone testing by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). The NCCPA is an independent organization, and the commissioners represent a number of different medical professions. It is not a part of the PA professional organization, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). To maintain that "C" after "PA", a physician assistant must log 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and take the recertification exam every six years.

What is the number of PAs?

AAPA estimates there were 88,771 people eligible to practice as PAs and 74,469 people in clinical practice as PAs at the beginning of May 2010.

How many accredited PA programs are there?

There are over 140 PA programs in the US. Programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The ARC-PA is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

The typical PA program is 24-32 months long and requires at least four years of college and some health care experience prior to admission. The majority of students have a BA/BS degree and prior health care experience before admission to a PA program.

While all programs recognize the professional component of PA education with a document of completion for the professional credential (PA), 80 percent of the programs also award a master’s degree. [113 award master’s degrees, 21 award bachelor’s degree, 3 award associate degrees, and 5 award certificates.]

How many students are there?

Approximately 12,470 students are currently enrolled in PA programs. The number of new graduates in 2007 was approximately 4,600.

Where can PAs prescribe?

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have enacted laws that authorize PA prescribing.

What is a PA's income?

Results of the 2009 AAPA Physician Assistant Census Survey indicate that the mean total income from primary employer for PAs who are not self-employed and who work at least 32 hours per week for their primary employer is $93,105 (standard deviation $23,867); the median is $87,500. The comparable mean for PAs who graduated in 2008 is $78,405 (standard deviation $14,245); the median is $77,500.

What is the outlook of the profession?

Approximately 84% of all individuals eligible to practice as PAs were in clinical practice at the beginning of May 2010.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of PA jobs will increase by 27 percent between 2006 and 2016. The BLS predicts the total number of jobs in the country will grow by 10 percent over this 10-year period.

Where can PAs practice?

All states plus the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the United States Virgin Islands have laws or regulations authorizing PA practice.

What are the certification and CME requirements?

PAs receive their national certification from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Only graduates of an accredited PA program are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Once a PA is certified, he/she must complete a continuous six-year cycle to keep her/his certificate current. Every two years, a PA must earn and log 100 CME hours and re-register her/his certificate with the NCCPA (second and fourth years), and by the end of the sixth year, re-certify by successfully completing either the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Examination (PANRE) or Pathway II. Please note: The last administration of Pathway II will be held in 2010 and therefore, only PAs that will be in their fifth or sixth year by 2010 will be eligible for this option. All states require passage of the PANCE for state licensure. Forty-three states have provisions for new graduates to practice prior to passage of PANCE.