physician assistant job descriptions several specialties

Job Descriptions for Physician Assistants (in Various Specialties)

People often ask about physician assistant job descriptions. 

Overall, it’s kind of a boring topic. So I’ll try to spice it up a little bit. 

Instead of just giving one job description, I’ll give multiple job descriptions for various work settings.

This includes a general PA job description, as well as descriptions for some of the popular PA specialties out there. 

Hopefully this helps you understand a little bit more about the PA career, in a variety of specialties.

General Job Description for Physician Assistants

A PA does nearly the same job as a doctor, but is technically under the “supervision” of a doctor. That’s the easiest way to describe it. 

Here’s a more thorough description:

A physician assistant evaluates patients, identifies health problems, orders tests (such as blood tests, x-rays, and so on), writes prescriptions, and otherwise does what’s needed to diagnose and treat the patients that they see. 

If you pay close attention, this is identical to what physicians do. And in some specialties, it is literally identical. (In other PA specialties, it can be a little bit different from what a doctor would do.)

Job Description for a Physician Assistant in Primary Care

Describing the job of a primary care PA

A physician assistant in primary care (such as family practice or internal medicine) evaluates patients in a clinic, makes diagnoses, orders tests, writes prescriptions, and provides referrals. 

The PA also does preventative care such as screening tests, immunizations, and so on. 

The job of a primary care PA is almost identical to that of a primary care doctor, with the exception of some paperwork that doctors have to fill out.

When I worked in primary care, there wasn’t really any difference between what I was doing and what the physicians were doing (again, other than some paperwork that required a Dr. signature, etc.).

Job Description for a Surgical PA

Here’s where things get a little different. 

A surgical PA works under the supervision of the surgeon, and typically spends the bulk of their time doing preoperative and postoperative clinic visits, and rounding on hospital patients. They typically also spend some time assisting the surgeon in the operating room. 

In other words, surgical PA’s do a bit more of the “grunt work” versus the physicians, stuff that the doctors don’t really want to do. And if they’re lucky, they may also get to participate in surgery a fair amount.

Here’s the bottom line:

A surgical physician assistant takes care of several of the same things that surgeons do, but can never completely “be the surgeon”.

Job Description for an Emergency Medicine PA

This is my main specialty. 🙂

A physician assistant working in the ER evaluates patients, makes diagnoses, orders tests, provides treatments, writes prescriptions, and ultimately makes the decision about whether the patient needs to be admitted to the hospital, discharged home, transferred, or some other outcome.

Basically, the PA does all the same things that the physician does. 

The main difference between emergency room doctors and PA’s is that sometimes the doctors have a little more responsibility, such as running codes (including cardiac arrest, heart attacks, strokes) and doing some of the “advanced procedures” (such as intubation or placing central lines). 

physician assistants in the emergency room run codes less often than doctors

In some hospitals, PA’s do some of these things as well. But in a lot of places, they don’t get as involved in those cases or procedures. 

In my experience, in the places where I’ve worked, PA’s rarely run codes or do advanced procedures. But we do all of the other things that a doctor in the ER would do. (This includes other types of procedures, like suturing, incision & drainage, etc).

Final Thoughts on Job Descriptions for Various PA Specialties

As you can see, there’s not just one job description for a PA. Unless you make it super general, in which case it kind of applies regardless of the specialty. 

Overall, there are a lot of differences in your job description, depending on where you work (in addition to what specialty you do). 

If you work in primary care, or most other outpatient settings, your job will be quite similar to that of a physician. 

If you work in the operating room, or in the emergency room, there will be some key distinctions. 
So before you decide on a specialty, consider shadowing a few PA’s in that specialty so you can really get a good idea of what it’s like.