1: Skip to content 2: Skip to navigation
up close photo of doctor writing on chart

So You Want to Be a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on a team under the direction of physicians and/or surgeons. PAs are licensed to provide a variety of health care services, including physical exams, diagnose illness and disease, order and interpret lab tests and x-rays, prescribe medicine, instruct and counsel patients, and assist with surgical procedures. However, it is important to note that the level of health care that a PA can provide is based on experience and education by the individual, as well as state law.

To become a PA, a student must graduate from an accredited PA program. The typical entering student has a bachelor’s degree and approximately four years of health care experience. The average PA program takes 27 months to complete. Subjects covered in PA school include anatomy, physiology, medical ethics, pathology, pharmacology, biochemistry, microbiology, behavioral sciences, physical diagnosis and differential diagnosis. To practice as a PA, individuals must pass a national PA certification exam and obtain state authorization (license, registration or certification). In order to maintain their certification to practice, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education over a two-year cycle and pass a recertification exam every six years.

There are 139 accredited U.S. physician assistant programs (Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, ARC-PA) that graduate 4,600 individuals annually. The average number of seats for each program is between 45-50, with an average length of 27 months. PA programs have transitioned from the associates’ level, to the bachelor’s level, and now are at the master’s level. Currently, over 90 PA programs award master’s degrees or provide a graduate degree option. The Pacific Northwest currently has five PA programs awarding the master’s degree.

Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Increased demand for healthcare services from the growing and aging population and widespread chronic disease, combined with a shortage of physicians, will result in increased demand for healthcare providers, such as physician assistants.

PLU offers all the courses necessary for an individual to meet the prerequisites to any PA program. In addition, most of the required courses are offered twice per year.