What is a PA?

We outline what a PA is and how they're trained.

December 17, 2020


PA stands for physician assistant. A PA is a trained medical provider who is nationally certified and state licensed to practice medicine. Today, there are more than 140,000 certified PAs in the United States. 

PAs practice medicine as part of a health care team that's supervised by a doctor. People often ask what the role of a PA is and how it differs from what a doctor does.

What does a PA do?

PAs take part in many aspects of patient care. PAs: 

  • Get medical histories
  • Do physical exams
  • Find out the causes of illnesses
  • Give care to people with illnesses
  • Order and interpret tests
  • Counsel patients on preventive health care
  • Help with surgery
  • Write prescriptions
  • Make rounds in nursing homes and hospitals

Where does a PA work?

A third of PAs practice in primary care. All other PAs practice in specialty medicine. More than a third of all PAs practice in hospital settings and more than a third work in a clinic.

The remaining PAs work in a variety of settings, including: 

  • Community health centers
  • Freestanding surgical facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • School or college-based facilities
  • Industrial settings
  • Correctional institutions

Where do PAs train?

PAs are taught in an intense graduate program similar to medical school. PAs are often educated alongside physicians in medical schools, academic medical centers and residencies. 

PA education is based on the medical school curriculum, including classroom instruction and clinical rotations. That means PAs share care decisions with doctors.

After a year of classroom study, PAs complete at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotations with an emphasis on: 

  • Primary care clinics
  • Doctor offices
  • Acute care facilities
  • Long-term care facilities


By Stephanie P. Rezendes, PA-C

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The information provided is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for professional health care. You should consult an appropriate health care professional for your specific needs.