What Is a Physician Assistant? And How to Become One?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Physician assistants (PAs), also called 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 programme and other essential information.

[Fetured imge] Two health information managers stand in a white room, looking at patient data on a laptop computer while standing in front of two desktop computers

The inception of the physician assistant profession in India began as an experiment in Chennai in 1992 and has quickly grown into a thriving profession. The Indian Association of Physician Assistants (IAPA) played an integral role in increasing the profession's popularity. Ten universities collaborate with more than 47 institutions to provide PA programmes nationwide [1]. 

Get to know 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 healthcare career.

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 

  • Prescribing treatments and medications

  • 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 healthcare industry, you'll find that 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. Some common specialties include internal medicine, radiology, dermatology, pediatrics, cardiology, anesthesia, family medicine, and surgery. 

Physician assistant job outlook

The job outlook for a physician assistant is promising, with staffing shortages, high turnover rates, and numbers of physicians working overseas driving continued demand.  

7 steps for getting a job as a physician assistant

Does becoming a physician assistant sound like the right career path for you? These seven 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 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 the healthcare environment you choose to work in, you'll face sensitive topics daily and must be tactful and maintain confidentiality.

  • 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 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 healthcare providers. 

2. Take as many science courses as possible. 

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. To become a PA, one must pass Class 12 in the Science stream, complete graduation in Biology, Chemistry, or Pharma, and clear postgraduation in science and medical courses mentioned earlier. Some practical classes for your chosen career may include: 

3. Consider taking non-science courses, too. 

You can also take calculus, algebra, and statistics to enhance your maths skills. Communication skills and technical writing courses will improve your communication abilities. Meanwhile, psychology and sociology can help you better understand your patients’ lives. 

4. Get your bachelor's degree. 

Most PA training programmes require a first degree in a science-related field. You may also opt to pursue Master of Physician Associate Studies programmes, which integrate bachelor’s and master’s degrees or a postgraduate diploma for those who already have a degree. 

5. When you're ready, apply to physician assistant school. 

Once you have all of your prerequisites – a background in science, a bachelor's degree, and preferably some health care experience – you can apply to a PA programme. You’ll find more than 40 different programmes available throughout the country, each with unique requirements and many with an entrance exam you must pass and an entrance interview.

6. Prepare for your interview. 

If a school considers admitting you, the first step will be an interview. This 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. 

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

Once you're accepted, prepare to study and work hard. PA training programmes also include clinical rotations within various specialties, emphasising primary care. 

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 toward healthcare careers offered by some of the top universities in the world, like the Anatomy Specialisation from the University of Michigan or on Trauma Emergencies and Care from the University of Colorado.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Article sources

1. Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. “Physician Assistants in India: Triumphs and Tribulations, https://journals.lww.com/jaapa/fulltext/2014/04000/physician_assistants_in_india__triumphs_and.1.aspx.” Accessed March 4, 2024.

2. Glassdoor India. “Physician Associate Salaries in India, “https://www.glassdoor.co.in/Salaries/india-physician-assistant-salary-SRCH_IL.0,5_IN115_KO6,25.htm?clickSource=searchBtn.” Accessed March 4, 2024. 

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