PHYSICIAN ASSISTANTS (also known as PAs) are medical professionals responsible for evaluating, diagnosing, and treating patients in almost every specialty, from primary care to neurosurgery. Physician Assistants are found in outpatient clinics, hospitals, surgery centers, and academic institutions. Both an undergraduate degree and medical experience are required before admission into PA school, and PA programs range from two to three years with training in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, ethics, and general medicine. Upon graduation from an accredited program, Physician Assistants must pass a national certifying exam (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, or PANCE), and become licensed to practice in their chosen state. Some PAs complete post-graduate fellowships in medical and surgical specialties, although fellowship training is not required for practice in specialty areas. They may also pursue Specialty Certificates of Added Qualifications (CAQs) in Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, Emergency Medicine, Hospital Medicine, Nephrology, Orthopaedic Surgery, Pediatrics, or Psychiatry. To maintain certification and licensure throughout their careers, PAs must regularly obtain credits for continuing medical education (CME), and pass recertification exams (Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam). Once licensed and certified, PAs work as part of the medical team alongside physicians and nurses. They practice and prescribe medications in all U.S. states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and the military. While all PAs must have a supervising physician who oversees their care, their level of autonomy varies by state and is governed by statute.
Most malpractice litigation relating to Physician Assistants involves poor outcomes arising from inadequate supervision by a physician, or deviation from the standard of care within the scope of practice of a PA. In this regard, PAs often testify on standard of care but would be unlikely to testify on causation. An experienced, Board-Certified Physician Assistant is a valuable resource in defining the role of the PA and scope of the profession in each state.