What Is a Physician Assistant? (+ How to Become One)

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Physician assistants act as a support to doctors and physicians. Learn what you need to do to become a physician assistant, including how to get into a physician assistant school and other key information.

[Featured image] A physician assistant in a white lab coat shows test results on a laptop to her colleague.

Physician assistants (PAs) work under the supervision of a physician to diagnose and treat illnesses. They can usually prescribe medicine and may even assist with surgery [1].

Learn more about what physician assistants do and how to get into physician assistant school and complete your training so you can get started with this exciting career in health care.

What does a physician assistant do?

Physician assistants work with patients in doctors' offices, hospitals,  community clinics, nursing homes, and other medical setting where a physician may work. While they must do their job in collaboration with a doctor, they often serve as primary care providers. According to the Government of Canada Job Bank, a physician assistant may perform duties such as:

  • Interviewing patients to take a medical history

  • Conducting physical assessments 

  • Performing, ordering, and interpreting diagnostics and results

  • Formulating treatment plans (in consultation with a supervising physician),

  • Monitoring patient progress and providing ongoing health education

  • Participating in minor surgery or research activities

  • Writing prescriptions from a limited list of medications [2]

What are some reasons to become a physician assistant?

Becoming a physician assistant can allow you to help others and contribute to the well-being of your community. PAs can focus more on direct care with patients than doctors, which can be very rewarding. Many people also choose to become a PA instead of a physician because there are fewer educational requirements. Competitive salaries and job security are also benefits of the job.  ‎

Where physician assistants work

Physician assistants have three options for work location. Civilian PAs can work in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Military PAs can work anywhere in Canada and possibly overseas. Occupational Health PAs work in a regular setting and can also work in British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon.

The Nova Scotia physician assistant program was a three-year pilot; the government will soon allow PAs to work in the emergency departments at Bridgewater’s South Shore Regional Hospital and Dartmouth’s acute care hospital [3].

Specializations for physician assistants

Physician assistants can specialize in many health care areas. Among them are:

  • Family medicine

  • Emergency medicine 

  • Internal medicine

  • Oncology

  • Cardiology 

  • Paediatrics

  • Geriatrics 

Physician assistant salary and job outlook

According to Payscale, physician assistants in Canada can earn an annual median salary of $80,920 [4]. The job outlook for physician assistants is very good in Manitoba and good in British Columbia and Ontario [2].

Steps for getting a job as a physician assistant 

Does becoming a physician assistant sound like the right career path for you? These tips will guide you in the right direction.

Make sure you have the right workplace skills. 

Formal education isn't the only thing you need to become a physician assistant. You'll need the right people skills and personality for the job. Before you start on your path, consider whether or not you are: 

  • Compassionate: Many of your patients and their loved ones will be distressed. You must be empathetic to their feelings. 

  • A good communicator: You must clearly explain diagnoses, treatments, procedures, and complicated medical terms to patients, but it's also important to listen to what your patients say and show that you're taking it all in.

  • Sensitive: No matter what health care environment you choose to work in, you'll encounter sensitive topics daily. Can you be tactful and maintain confidentiality while you work? 

  • A hard worker: Physician assistants may work long hours, especially when they begin their careers. You must be dependable and willing to step up when others can't. 

  • A critical thinker: When you are in charge of a patient's care plan, you must be able to think on your feet, take all symptoms into account, and evaluate all potential treatments. Being a good problem solver is a must. 

  • Flexible: You never know what type of patient will walk through the door. Your patients might seek treatment for an extensive range of problems, from having a cold to being a stroke victim, primarily if you work in emergency medicine or urgent care. It's important to be mentally prepared to work under pressure. 

  • Willing to work with a team: Physician assistants collaborate with doctors, though they may not be under direct supervision. However, they still work with a team of nurses, CNAs (certified nursing assistants), therapists, pharmacists, social workers, and other health care providers. 

2. Complete four semesters of undergraduate studies 

To qualify for physician assistant schooling, you must complete four years of an undergraduate program. Most helpful is a pre-med program or applied health sciences. Biology, biochemistry, anatomy, or physiology are beneficial degree programs that can qualify you for the PA program.

3. Apply to a program

To become a physician assistant in Canada, you must complete the requirements at one of four schools offering the program. You can choose from the following programs:

  • McMaster University Physician Assistant Education Program

  • Manitoba Masters of Physician Assistant Studies

  • Temerty Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, BSc Physician Assistant Prog

  • Canadian Forces Health Services Training Centre Program (military personnel only)

4.  Meet the requirements 

To enrol in a PA program at one of Canada’s four schools, you may be required to pass the CASPer test. You may also need to meet some or all of the following requirements: 

  • Hold Canadian citizenship or permanent residency.

  • Possess a four-year bachelor’s degree from a recognized university

  • Submit recommendation letters from a professor, employer, or student advisor

  • Have completed a four-year bachelor’s program with a minimum GPA of 3.0

  • Have the ability to pay school fees

  • Pass the admission interview

5. Complete clinical training

The second year of the physician assistant program requires the completion of clinical training. This training will include working under a physician or physician assistant, and in some cases, you may be required to take a written exam.

6. Obtain certification

Although not mandated, obtaining certification from the Canadian Association of Physician Assistants can increase your job opportunities. Upon completing the physician assistant program, you can sit for the exam.

Next steps

If you're considering becoming a physician assistant, you can get a taste of the field by exploring coursework in science or anatomy. On Coursera, you'll find online courses geared towards health care careers offered by some of the top universities in the world, like the Anatomy Specialization from the University of Michigan or a course on Trauma Emergencies and Care from the University of Colorado.


Article sources


Canadian PA. Learn About the PA Profession in Canada, https://canadianpa.ca/whatisapa/. Accessed April 23, 2024.

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