What is a Physician Assistant?

PA Coaching • May 25, 2023

Maybe you have never heard of this profession, or maybe you simply don’t know how to describe it to others. This video will teach you what is a physician assistant and how to convey the role to others.

What is a Physician Assistant?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term “Physician Assistant” (PA), you may be wondering about the nature of this profession. Whether you’re new to the medical field, a student seeking to explain it to your non-medical family, or preparing for a PA school interview, understanding what is a physician assistant and does is crucial. This article aims to provide a comprehensive explanation of what is a physician assistant, the role and responsibilities.

The Name Game: Physician Assistant or Physician Associate?

To begin with, the profession has undergone some naming changes in recent years. While “Physician Assistant” has been the widely used term since the late 1960s, there has been a recent push to change the name to “Physician Associate.” However, to avoid confusion, it’s recommended to stick with “PA” as the shorthand for the profession. It’s important not to mistake it for “physicians assistant,” as that is not the correct term.

Defining a PA’s Role

So, what is a physician assistant? Simply put, a Physician Assistant is a nationally certified and licensed medical practitioner capable of evaluating and treating patients, ordering diagnostic tests, prescribing medications, performing minor procedures, and even assisting in surgeries in collaboration with a physician. In essence, PAs are highly trained medical professionals holding advanced degrees, either a master’s or doctorate degree. They are required to pass a national certification exam and maintain licensure in the state where they practice.

Variations in Scope of Practice

It’s important to note that the scope of practice for PAs can vary across different specialties and states. Each state has its own set of regulations governing the practice of PAs. To stay informed about the scope of practice in your state, joining the state PA organization is highly recommended. Not only does it provide valuable knowledge, but it also enables advocacy for the profession’s growth, ensuring that PAs can practice to the fullest extent of their licensure.

Autonomy and Collaboration

A common question arises regarding the independence of PAs in patient care. Yes, PAs are capable of seeing patients independently, taking histories, performing physical examinations, ordering tests, interpreting results, explaining findings, and prescribing medications. While a collaborating physician is not required to be physically present at all times, especially for experienced PAs, having a collaborating physician accessible for consultation is standard practice. PAs function as advanced practitioners, having advanced degrees and working collaboratively within the healthcare team.

PAs vs. Doctors: Different Paths, Different Expertise

It’s crucial to understand the distinction of what is a physician assistant and a doctor. PAs are not doctors, and it’s important not to convey that impression to others or yourself. Physicians undergo extensive training, including four years of medical school, residency, and sometimes fellowship, focusing on a specific area of expertise. PAs, on the other hand, possess their own unique training and capabilities. While they perform many day-to-day tasks with patients, they do not possess the same depth of training as doctors. It’s important to consider which path in medicine aligns with your goals, whether it be the MD route, the PA route, or the NP route.

Uniqueness of the PA Profession

The PA profession has its own distinct features that set it apart from other healthcare roles. PAs have the ability to treat patients across various specialties and age groups without needing additional training. Unlike nurse practitioners who choose a specific focus within their umbrella specialization, PAs can transition between specialties without requiring additional certifications. While there are optional PA residencies available for those seeking more intensive training, they are not mandatory. This flexibility allows PAs to adapt and work in different medical fields throughout their careers.


In summary, a Physician Assistant (PA) is a nationally certified and licensed medical practitioner with advanced training and the ability to evaluate, diagnose, treat, and collaborate in patient care. While the profession has recently been referred to as “Physician Associate,” it is still commonly known as “Physician Assistant.” It’s important to grasp the unique role and responsibilities of PAs, as they differ from those of doctors and nurse practitioners. By clearly understanding what is a physician assistant, you can effectively explain the profession to others and make informed decisions about your own career path.

Also read: A Guide to Standardized Tests for PA School

About me:

I’m Michele Neskey, aka The Posh PA. Welcome to my YouTube channel! My mission is to provide personalized guidance, education, and motivation to build confidence and promote wellness for aspiring physician assistants and beyond.   

Having been a PA for 17+ years and helped hundreds of students gain acceptance into PA school,  I understand the admissions process. I know what they are looking for, and I can help you tailor every component to make you shine, giving you the BEST chance of getting accepted to a program.  But it doesn’t end there. I create personalized plans for PA students and practicing PAs including test-taking strategy for the PANCE, contract negotiations, and tools to overcome and prevent provider burnout. 

My goal is to get you into a physician assistant (PA) school & survive the rigorous program, help you prevent burnout as a practicing PA, and help you take care of yourself so you can be the best version of YOU for your patients, family, and most importantly YOU!