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

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Physician assistants, or physician associates, support 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 essential information.

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

While this job is common in the United States, it’s relatively new here in the United Kingdom. Training programmes first emerged in 2004, and the role has become increasingly important in the face of growing demand and staff shortages.

If you want to become a physician assistant, you'll need a background in science to get into one of the over 35 competitive physician assistant programmes in the country [1]. Learn more about what physician assistants do, how to get into physician assistant school, and how to 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, clinics, nursing homes, and other medical settings where a physician may work. While they must do their job in collaboration with a doctor, they often serve as primary care providers in their own right. Typical duties include: 

  • Taking a patient's medical history

  • Ordering diagnostic tests

  • Interpreting test results 

  • Performing physical exams 

  • Diagnosing injuries, illnesses, and health conditions 

  • Educating patients on topics like disease prevention and management and healthy lifestyle choices

  • Performing some procedures 

  • Assisting physicians with surgery

  • Making hospital rounds 

Specialisations for physician assistants

Because the physician assistant's job is so versatile and essential to the health care industry, they practice in various specialisations, working alongside physicians to provide patient care in multiple settings. Some allow for more autonomy, and some offer higher pay rates. According to the NHS, PAs work primarily in emergency medicine, internal medicine, and general practice. 

Physician assistant salary and job outlook

According to Glassdoor UK, physician associates make an average salary of £43,071 [2]. The job outlook for a physician assistant is also promising, with record staff shortages driving demand. 

10 steps for getting a job as a physician assistant

Does becoming a physician assistant sound like the right career path for you? These 10 tips will guide you in the right direction.

1. Make sure you have the right workplace skills. 

Formal education is one of many things 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 face 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. 

  • Critical thinker: When you are in charge of a patient's care plan, you must be able to think on your feet, consider all symptoms, 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 critical 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. Take many science courses. 

Before you enter physician assistant training, you'll need a strong background in bioscience. You can start taking science courses as early as secondary school. If you've already graduated, take many bio-science courses, either online or in person. Some practical classes for your chosen career can include: 

3. Consider taking non-science courses too. 

Calculus, algebra, and statistics are essential for enhancing your math skills. English, speech, and technical writing courses can improve your communication abilities. Psychology and sociology can help you better understand your patients' lives. 

4. Gain work experience in the health care field. 

Many physician associate training programmes prefer candidates with relevant work experience involving children or adults. Some programmes also accept portfolios that include online medical experience. You can also gain health care experience in the military. 

5. Get your bachelor's degree. 

Most PA training programmes require a first degree in a bioscience-related field. You may also opt to pursue Master of Physician Associate Studies programmes, which integrate bachelor’s and master’s degrees. These specialised programmes require A-levels, or their equivalent, for acceptance. 

Alternative paths include level 7 apprenticeships. Health professionals, such as nurses or midwives, can apply for training. 

6. When you're ready, apply for a Master of Physician Associate Studies programme. 

You can apply to a PA program once you have all of your prerequisites—a background in science, a bachelor's degree, and some health care experience.

You'll likely apply through the University and College Admissions Service (UCAS). You'll need academic references and a personal statement with an official list of your health care and patient care experience and why you want to become a physician's assistant.

7. Prepare for your interview. 

If a school is considering admitting you, they'll interview you first to make sure you're the right fit for the programme. The interview allows you to demonstrate why you’re a good fit for the position and highlight your experience providing hands-on care in a medical or non-medical setting. 

Be ready to explain who you are, what you're good at, what you love to do, and what you want to do. Make it clear that you understand the role of a PA and communicate why you want entry into this specific programme. 

8. Know what to expect once you're accepted.

Once you're accepted, prepare to study and work hard. Most programmes take about two years to complete, and you'll eventually earn a master's degree. PA training programmes also include about 1,600 hours of clinical rotations within various specialties, with an emphasis on primary care. 

9. Pass the Physician Associate National Certification Examination (PANE). 

Once you graduate from physician assistant school, you'll have to become certified as a 

physician assistant. This means passing the PANE, an exam with a 14-station Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) and 200 written questions. PAs must take a 200-question exam every six years for recertification. 

10. Register with the Physician Associate Managed Voluntary Register (PAMVR).  

While the UK does not mandate registration, the PAMVR enables employers to check whether applicants are fully qualified easily. The Royal College of Physicians Faculty of Physician Associates (FPA) created the registry in 2010 to protect the public and set countrywide standards as regulations evolve. 

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 Specialisation from the University of Michigan or a Course on Trauma Emergencies and Care from the University of Colorado.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Article sources


National Institute for Health and Care Research. “Physician Associates Need Support to Establish Their Place Within the Healthcare Workforce, https://evidence.nihr.ac.uk/alert/physician-associates-need-support-establish-place-within-healthcare-workforce/.” Accessed May 21, 2024.

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