Q. What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?
A. Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. 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.
Because of the close working relationship the PAs have with physicians, PAs are educated in the medical model designed to complement physician training. PA students are taught, as are medical students, to diagnose and treat medical problems.
Education consists of classroom and laboratory instruction in the basic medical and behavioral sciences (such as anatomy, pharmacology, pathophysiology, clinical medicine, and physical diagnosis), followed by clinical rotations in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and geriatric medicine.
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. A PA's education doesn't stop after graduation, though. PAs are required to take ongoing continuing medical education classes and be retested on their clinical skills on a regular basis. A number of postgraduate PA programs have also been established to provide practicing PAs with advanced education in medical specialties. 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.
Q. How did the Physician Assistant profession begin?
A. 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.
Q. What does "PA-C" stand for? What does the "C" mean?
A. 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. .
(Information is from the website of the American Association of Physician Assistants, www.aapa.org)