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Physician Assistant Job Descriptions

By an allied health world contributing writer

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Anything a medical doctor might do on a daily basis can be handed off to a physician assistant. The list of fields in which a physician assistant might practice is long (orthopedics, gynecology, oncology, ears, nose and throat, pediatrics, family medicine, emergency room, cardiac surgery, neurology are but a few) and the list of tasks a physician assistant might perform is even longer. It might be easier to note what a physician assistant cannot do.

A physician assistant cannot hold a job that does not involve being supervised, in some way, by a medical doctor, or another physician assistant who is, in turn, supervised by a doctor.

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While individual states, districts and territories can legislate limitations on the scope and breadth of a physician assistant’s practice, these restrictions are more often delegated to the hospitals, clinics and physicians who supervise the physician Physician Assistant Job Descriptionassistants. These bodies may set strict rules on what physician assistants cannot do, or allow themselves the flexibility to create those restrictions on a case-by-case basis. For example, a doctor may prohibit physician assistants from prescribing certain classes of drugs without explicit approval from the doctor him or herself.

Hospitals and states may determine how many physician assistants per surgeon may be present during an operation. Physician assistants who encounter patients with diseases that the physician assistants have no experience with are encouraged to turn the case over to the doctor, or at least consult with their supervisor. Physicians may also set the length of time a physician assistant can practice independently between formal consultation and reviews with the doctor. A doctor may choose to supervise physician assistants face-to-face or by phone, or by the simple oversight of reviewing patient charts that were written by the physician assistant. In regions where doctors are scarce, doctor/physician assistant interaction may occur less frequently and the physician assistant becomes the primary provider of health care. However, a physician assistant should always keep the health of the patient in mind and not let his or her ego get in the way of following the orders of the supervising physician or seeking advice.

During an appendectomy or gall bladder removal, at the doctor’s discretion, the physician assistant may be asked to actually take out the organ. The doctor may permit the physician assistant to admit, interview and diagnose a new patient. The physician assistant may take vital signs with a stethoscope, blood pressure monitor and EKG, or direct a nurse or another physician assistant to do the same. Doctors may also permit physician assistants to determine when the patient is healthy enough to be released from a hospital and send the patient home with a prescription for pharmaceuticals and advice on how to care for stitches or post-operative issues. Physician assistants generally enjoy a good deal of autonomy in making decisions on therapy and pharmaceutical treatment, diagnostic tests and preventative health counseling. Most patients would be unable to tell the difference between a doctor and a physician assistant. Indeed, physician assistants study the same topics, undergo similar training and must continue to update their skills and knowledge to keep abreast of changes in medical technology and methods.

Learn more about physician assistant school requirements.

The term assistant may be misleading. First of all, physician assistants are not physician’s assistants. In a sense, there are many healthcare professionals who assist physicians, including nurses, pharmacists, receptionists, medical students and hospital administrators. Nor should physician assistants be confused with medical assistants; the two fields are very different. While the latter vocation may enjoy a lot of patient interaction and be permitted to help with diagnostic testing, medical assistants handle clinical and administrative duties without the level of authority and responsibility a physician assistant has. Physician assistants are more like to partners to doctors. And although the doctor has the final say in all matters, the duties of physician assistants are nearly synonymous to their supervisors.

The field began nearly half a century ago when U.S. Navy corpsmen returning from Vietnam sought to transition to life outside the armed forces. These military medics lacked the formal training that doctors underwent, but had valuable skills that could certainly be put to use in the civilian world. A specialty program based on the military’s “fast-track” medical training methods (developed in the Second World War) was created. By the end of the 1960s, the first graduating class of physician assistants was available to help relieve the critical shortage of doctors that plagued many areas of the nation.


As a result of filling in where doctor shortages are endemic, physician assistants may find themselves subject to the same long hours or weekend work of doctors. Physicians assistants may be on-call and available by phone at any time of day or night. They may make house calls by themselves or visit patients in nursing homes or rehab centers. For the physician assistant, the joy of the job (and many of the headaches) are the same as for doctors; helping a person improve from being sick or injured to becoming healthy and independent again. And while technically, a patient needn’t call a physician assistant, “doc,” many people’s instinct might be to do just that.

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