One of the major problems facing the health care industry is that there aren't enough doctors to go around, and many of them are already seeing as many patients as they can reasonably care for. Often, health care facilities turn to physician assistants as a way to treat more patients. Physician assistants are highly trained health care providers in their own right, able to provide routine medical care under a physician's supervision. To practice as a physician assistant, you need a state license and national certification.
Getting the Training
Choosing a physician assistant's career isn't a snap decision. Each PA training program has its own prerequisites, and they're highly competitive. You typically need to take courses in microbiology, physiology, biology and several related topics, as well as math and humanities. It takes at least two years to accumulate the necessary credits, and most successful applicants have a bachelor's degree in a related field. The majority of programs also require or prefer some hands-on experience in health care, often as a nurse or paramedic. The physician assistant degree typically takes 27 months, with one year in the classroom and 15 months in clinical rotations.
National Certification and Licensing
When you graduate from an accredited training program with your master's degree, you still can't practice as a physician assistant right away. First, you have to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, or PANCE, which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Once your application is accepted, you'll have 180 days to complete the exam at a Pearson VUE testing center. It consists of 300 multiple-choice questions designed to test your medical knowledge. If you past, you can call yourself a Physician Assistant-Certified and apply for state licensing. Most states have some additional licensing requirements, such as compliance with a code of ethics.
Maintenance of Certification
Once you're nationally certified as a PA, you have to meet the NCCPA's standards for continuing education. Every two years you have to complete and document 100 hours of continuing medical education, and every six years you're required to take another examination called the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Examination, or PANRE. There are several forms of continuing education. You can receive credit for completing college-level courses, attending seminars or training sessions, publishing research papers or even reading peer-reviewed medical journals.
Like physicians, physician assistants can choose to focus on a specialized area of practice, ranging from family medicine to surgery. The NCCPA offers additional certifications in many of these fields, providing physician assistants with an avenue to demonstrate their higher level of competence. These Certificates of Additional Qualifications, or CAQs ,are available in thoracic and cardiovascular surgery, emergency medicine, nephrology, orthopedic surgery and psychiatry. Candidates have to show training and experience in the specialty and pass another certifying exam.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Physician Assistant
- American Academy of Physician Assistants: Becoming a PA
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants: PANCE
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants: PANRE
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants: New Certification Process Overview
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants: Specialty Certificates of Additional Qualifications
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Physician Assistants
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.