What is a Physician Assistant?

For those pursuing a career in the field of medicine, the role of a physician assistant is a fascinating and fulfilling one. But many may wonder how this profession differs from other highly trained assistants and nursing specialists? Below, we’ll explore the duties, education, and additional salient details of this fascinating and vital medical specialization to help interested parties better understand it.

First Things First

You may have encountered the term before, but assumed that these specialists were similar to nurse practitioners or nurses. While they do share some common educational ground, the physician assistant must surmount different educational challenges. Also, this position is a relatively new one in the sphere of healthcare. As of today in America, the AAPA represents oversight for these professionals.

They must complete one of 218 nationally accredited programs, which are typically graduate level and require a prerequisite bachelor’s degree. Additionally, physician assistants are expected to pass a national certification exam. Physician assistants train in the same way as those students planning to become medical doctors. However, because their degree is nominally a terminal masters degree, they do not complete much of the additional education required of doctors.

Primarily, their education prepares them to assume a vital role within a healthcare team, with expert knowledge similar to the physicians they support, according to to the Physician Assistant Life. While a physician assistant degree can be a precursor to additional, advanced medical training, currently it does not grant individuals the right to practice medicine on their own. For those wishing to pursue further education beyond a master’s degree, they may apply to one of 49 programs, which offer highly focused training in fields such as trauma and critical care, neurology, or oncology. The Association of Postgraduate Physician Assistant programs operates to provide oversight and support for these advanced studies.

Field History

Physician assistant training and educational requirements are modeled after those standards set for swiftly educating field doctors during WWII. In brief, the physician assistant courses are grounded in essential skills and knowledge for treating wounds, diseases, and curtailing the spread of illness under demanding and hectic conditions, often with limited materials at their disposal. While you won’t be studying to practice in trenches during hostile engagements, the core merit of this approach provides a deep understanding of the needs of both patients and doctors during treatment.

Following Charles Hudson’s recommendation to the AMA, Eugene Stead of Duke University designed and implemented the first program of this type, graduating four students. It’s to his credit that today’s physician assistants receive such rigorous and thorough training. However, several other key figures followed his example. Richard Smith of the University of Washington, Hu Meyers of Alderson-Broaddus College, and J. Willis Hurst of Emory each launched independently crafted programs to this end.

By 1971, the United States Army caught onto the trend and began educating physician assistants in classes of 30, accredited by Baylor University. Today, these specialists are internationally recognized and practice as part of medical teams around the world. From Afghanistan to Germany and Ghana to New Zealand, individuals with rigorous medical training and deep understanding of their vital role assist medical professionals in a variety of contexts and scenarios.

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Those interested in pursuing this profession are often keenly aware of the need to support medical personnel with a team of knowledgeable and skilled individuals. Although it is a relatively new position in the healthcare world, it was created to meet an identified need not served by other members of a caregiving team. The physician assistant offers focused support, tailored to the needs of doctors by a battle-tested course of education.