FAQs About PAs

How much education does a PA need? What training did you receive?

Most physician assistant programs require applicants to have previous health care experience and some college. The typical applicant already has a bachelor's degree and approximately four years of health care experience prior to entering the PA program. Commonly, nurses, EMTs, lab technicians, and paramedics apply to PA programs.

PA programs look for students who have a desire to study, work hard, and "to be of service." On average, the accredited physician assistant program runs more than 25 months. PA programs are all accredited by one independent organization -- the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. This organization is supported in part by the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Surgeons, and the PA profession. All PA programs must meet the same accreditation standards.

Once in PA School, What can I expect?

In the first year, PA students take classes in anatomy and physiology, psychology, microbiology, internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, geriatrics, surgery, and the like. These classes are taught as both course work and lab sessions.

In the second year of study, PA students are on clinical rotations, like medical students. During this period they treat patients in each of the major disciplines of medicine and perform additional course work on campus.

The Physician Assistant Education Association (formally the Association of PA Programs) and AAPA recognize that PA education in accredited programs is conducted at the graduate level. Most PA programs award a master's degree upon graduation but some programs award an associate's or bachelor's degree or certificate

A PA's education doesn't stop after graduation, though. PAs are required to take on-going continuing medical education classes and, in order to maintain national certification, must be re-tested on their medical knowledge every six years.

Where can I find out more about physician assistant programs? Is there a PA educational program in this state?

The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) publishes a directory of all PA programs in the United States . You can learn more by calling their office at 703/548-5538, by writing to them at 300 North Washington Street, Alexandria, Virginia, 22314-2544, or by visiting their Web site.

There are currently five schools with Physician Assistant programs in Iowa, the University of Iowa, Des Moines University, University of Dubuque, Saint Ambrose University, and most recently, Northwestern College.  For more information about these schools visit the "PA Programs" section of this website or click on the school names to be redirected to their university websites.
What's the difference between a physician assistant and a physician?

Physician assistants are trained in medicine with classroom courses taught by physicians, physician assistants, and other qualified educators with special expertise.

One of the main differences between PA education and physician education is not the core content of the curriculum, but the amount of time spent in formal education. Physicians also are required to do an internship, and the majority also complete a residency in a specialty following that. PAs do not have to undertake an internship or residency.

A doctor has complete responsibility for the care of the patient. PAs share that responsibility with the doctors.

Doctors are independent practitioners. PAs practice medicine with the supervision of a physician. By supervision, I do not mean over-the-shoulder examination of all the patients seen by the PA. The physician is generally not required to be on site when the physician assistant is treating a patient. What it does mean is an interdependent relationship has been established -- with the physician depending on the PA to treat the patient in the same manner as if the physician were providing the care, and the PA depending on the physician to provide consultation and supervision to ensure all patients receive appropriate care.

What's the difference between a physician assistant and a nurse?

Registered nurses study nursing and PAs study medicine. While some areas of education overlap, nurses focus on nursing assessment and patient care issues. A PA is taught to diagnose and treat illnesses using the medical model. A registered nurse, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, works to promote health, prevent disease, and help patients cope with illness.
What's the difference between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner?

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses with advanced training in nursing. They specialize during their training, such as a pediatric NP, geriatric NP, family health NP, or women's health NP. Physician assistants are educated in the broad spectrum of medical and surgical care, allowing them to practice in the variety of specialties.

Another difference between NPs and PAs is their relationship to physicians. PAs work with physicians in a team model, with the physician providing appropriate supervision to ensure the patient is receiving quality medical care. This is because PAs and physicians both practice medicine.

NPs, in most states, work in a collaborative model with physicians, that is having a physician to whom the NP can refer patients requiring medical care.
Physicians, nurses, and PAs are all part of the team approach to health care delivery. These professionals provide quality services to their patients, but they have different educational backgrounds and patient responsibilities.