The Difference between a Physician and Physician Assistant by Amy Nutt


With the increase demands on Physicians, Physician Assistants have become a valuable part of the medical community. There are many differences between a physician and physician assistant.

A physician has complete responsibility for the care of the patient. Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine under direct physician supervision. As part of their duties, PAs will perform physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, arrange and interpret tests, provide surgical assistance, write prescriptions, and provide preventive health care counseling. A physician assistant will consult with a physician on a variety of diagnostic and therapeutic treatments. PA’s can also work in medical areas such as administration, education, and research.

In many medical schools, physician assistant students and physician students attend many of the same classes. While attending medical school, physicians are required to take a number of hospital internships. Physician students also have to complete a residency specializing in a particular medical area. PA students do not have to complete an internship or residency.

Upon graduation, physician assistants take a national certification examination. PAs must have graduated from an accredited physician assistant program and pass the national certification exam to obtain a state license. PAs maintain their national certification, by completing 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and taking a recertification exam every six years. The American Academy of Physician Assistants has established a number of guideline regarding legal responsibilities and the medical procedures that Physician assistants can perform. The guidelines coincide with the American Medical Association’s policies on physician assistants.

Physician assistants work under the direct supervision of physicians and adhere to the following guidelines:

1) The physician is ultimately responsible for coordinating and managing the care of patients and, with the appropriate input of the Physician Assistant, ensuring the quality of health care provided to patients. The physician is responsible for the supervision of the Physician Assistant in all settings. The role of the Physician Assistant(s) in the delivery of care should be defined through mutually agreed upon guidelines that are developed by the physician and the Physician Assistant and based on the physician’s delegation style.

2) The physician must be available for consultation with the Physician Assistant at all times either in person or through telecommunication systems or other means.
3) The extent of the involvement by the Physician Assistant in the assessment and implementation of treatment will depend on the complexity and acuity of the patient’s condition and the training and experience and preparation of the Physician Assistant as adjudged by the physician.
4) Patients should be made clearly aware at all times whether they are being cared for by a physician or a Physician Assistant.
5) The physician and Physician Assistant together should review all delegated patient services on a regular basis, as well as the mutually agreed upon guidelines for practice.
6) The physician is responsible for clarifying and familiarizing the Physician Assistant with his supervising methods and style of delegating patient care.

American Medical Association. Guidelines for Physician/Physician Assistant Practice. Policies of the AMA House of Delegates H.160-947. Chicago, IL.

In rural or inner city clinics, a physician assistant may be the main health provider if a physician is only available a couple of days a week. In these types of situations, the PA will consult with the physician. PAs will also visit nursing homes and other health institutions for follow up health care. Many PAs are employed in specialty care areas that can include internal medicine, major surgery, pediatrics, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics.

Physicians and Physician Assistants maintain a close working relationship to make sure all of their patients’ health care needs are met. The Physician Assistant profession is an area that is respected and highly regarded by the medical community.

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