What Do Physician Assistants Do?

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Although they aren't officially doctors and they can't work legally unless supervised by a licensed doctor, physician assistants share many responsibilities with their colleagues who hold a medical degree. As a result, they must first do several things before they can practice medicine: earn a college-level degree through a relevant academic program, complete at least two years of hands-on medical training, and acquire and then maintain PA certification.

Patient Care

  • Physician assistants often conduct patient examinations and select, order and evaluate appropriate tests. They can then diagnose medical problems in order to develop and deliver proper treatment plans.

Surgery

  • When a supervising doctor gives authorization, a physician assistant can assist during surgery, in addition to performing certain surgical procedures independently. In the second case, states have different requirements regarding specific procedures and whether a doctor must be present.

Drugs

  • With the supervisor's approval, physician assistants can administer drugs to patients and issue drug orders. Controlled substances are closely regulated by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but authorized physician assistants can order them and even register with the agency to obtain their own DEA number for that purpose.

Prescriptions

  • As of 2008, all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Guam, allow physician assistants to legally write prescriptions for patients.

Exceptions

  • Despite their freedom when working under the guidance of a doctor, physician assistants cannot practice medicine independently or provide certain services, such as prescribing contact lenses or performing dental procedures.

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