The Role of Physician Assistants in Patient Care

the role of physician assistants in patient care

Those considering a Master’s in Physician Assistant program may wonder about the physician assistant’s role, especially as it relates to working with doctors and ultimately caring for patients.  

The physician assistant position was created in the mid-1960s to help increase patient access to medical care.  Since then, the number of physician assistants—and their importance—has grown, especially in rural areas and other underserved communities. Today, physician assistants are a critical part of a healthcare practice’s medical team, and they are likely to play an even more crucial role in years to come, given a predicted shortage of healthcare professionals.

A big part of the physician assistant role is working effectively with all the other members of the team, especially the supervising physician. So, how do doctors and physician assistants work together?  

The Role of the Physician Assistant

A physician assistant acts as an extension of a doctor’s practice, seeing patients whose condition or treatment needs may not warrant an appointment with the physician. The scope of their responsibilities is shaped by the needs of the supervising doctor’s specialization and by the patient’s condition. 

Physician assistants can do many of the same things that doctors can, and they can serve as primary care providers. They can conduct physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, write prescriptions, order tests and interpret test results, and even assist with surgery. They also may be tasked with managing patient records. 

While physician assistants complete much of the same undergraduate coursework as doctors, their training is not as lengthy or intense, as doctors complete a medical school curriculum and a multiyear residency—which is why doctors are ultimately responsible for a patient’s care.

The Doctor-Physician Assistant Relationship

The physician assistant-doctor relationship can have a tremendous impact on how care is provided and the likelihood of successful patient outcomes.

By law, physician assistants must work under the supervision of a doctor (though they do not need to work in the same physical location), with the doctor ultimately assuming full responsibility for the patient’s care. This is one of the primary differences between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner, who can work independently without the direct supervision of a physician in most states.

Physician assistants are trained in how to support doctors and collaborate to ensure patients receive the care they need. That means recognizing when a referral to the doctor is necessary, especially for complicated cases or those that require care that extends beyond the physician assistant’s normal duties. 

Doctors typically view physician assistants and their contributions favorably and benefit from having them on their staff. Physician organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Surgeons, support the certification of physician assistants and the certification of physician assistant programs.  

The contributions physician assistants make are recognized and valued by doctors, who generally understand that they could not see or treat as many patients without them.

Launch your career as a physician assistant through Carlow University in Pittsburgh’s MS in Physician Assistant program. This innovative, cohort-based program will prepare you to take the Physician Assistant National Certification Examination (PANCE) and pursue a versatile and in-demand career as a physician assistant.