The physician assistant degree has its origins in World War II. When the war was on, doctors were in short supply and a fast-track training program was created to “make” more doctors who could help out on the battlefield.
The PA course, which started in 1970, is based on this fast-track program, but has evolved since then. Though we do not have a war on our hands these days, the American population is rising and more people are aging by the day. There is a shortage of doctors and therefore, the wise men up there foresaw the situation many decades ago and created the PA profession. You can say that a PA is roughly about 70% of a licensed doctor.
All PAs are required to free up physician time so that the physician can look after more patients, and focus on “bigger” healthcare issues, leaving the routine tasks to his PA. Today, every doctor-PA is an effective team that delivers efficient medical and surgical treatment and brings an ailing community back on its feet.
The physician assistant degree course involves training in the medical aspects of healthcare. PAs in schools learn the medical model directly from practicing physicians & PAs, and other medical experts. All PA students have to share their classes and clinical rotations with medical students. PA aspirants can only get admission only after completing a minimum of 2 years of college courses in basic and behavioral sciences. Some PA schools require a Bachelor of Science degree.
Obtaining a physician assistant degree takes about 26 months. The student is taught basic medical science in the first year. The teaching focuses on anatomy, pharmacology, physical examination, diagnosis, etc. The second half of the course focuses on clinical training. Clinical training involves classroom work and clinical rotations. Students have to work in real-life healthcare centers and obtain experience in medical and surgical specialties/sub-specialties. Every PA student is required to complete around 2,000 hours of overseen clinical work before he can obtain a degree (Read more here: Physician Assistant Requirements).
As all PAs train in healthcare centers, they get to know what it’s like helping a doctor and attending to patients in the real world. They, therefore, are almost-doctors by the time they obtain their physician assistant degree.
AAPA (American Academy of Physician Assistants) is the professional society that controls the profession. According to AAPA, a physician assistant is a medical professional who teams up with a doctor after graduating from an accredited PA educational program and obtaining a state license to practice medicine under his physician’s supervision. Note that the emphasis is on teamwork and supervision. The society firmly believes that effective healthcare can only be delivered through teamwork and so it is very important that all PA graduates must instill the teamwork philosophy in themselves.
The state prescribes laws governing the PA profession and physicians delegate work to their PAs per the state law and within their scope of practice. Some states are more liberal than others. A fresher armed with a physician assistant degree has to first obtain a license from the state before starting practice. The graduate will have to pass a state-administered exam. In real life all physician assistants perform all routine general medical practice duties. PAs specializing in a surgical practice help their surgeon conduct surgeries.
The PA profession pays very well and all physician degree holders are assured of a quality lifestyle. However, the profession requires tremendous dedication, commitment, hard work, working in graveyard and weekend shifts, and sometimes communicating with difficult people. It all works out in the end though because every PA helps patients recover from their illness and become productive and profitable citizens.