what qualities make a good physician assistant?

What Qualities Make a Good Physician Assistant?

Working as a physician assistant can be challenging.

You have to deal with a lot of other people, and conform to a lot of other personalities and systems.

There are a handful of key qualities that prepare you to work as a physician assistant.

In this article I’ll talk about what qualities make a good physician assistant, and explain why those qualities are important.

Let’s get started.

PA’s need to take initiative

To be successful as a physician assistant, you need to be a go-getter. In other words, take initiative and make things happen.

You’re going to be in a lot of situations where you have to take charge. You can’t necessarily wait around for other people to just do things.

For example, when I’m working in the emergency room it’s very common for there to be testing or treatment delays. Sometimes, if I just wait, some of the tests or treatments I order would literally never get done. So eventually, it falls on me to be assertive, and get things moving in the right direction.

That doesn’t mean I have to be rude. But I talk to the nurses, talk to the technicians, talk to the laboratory staff. I politely ask how things are going, and then express if something is particularly important and needs to get done sooner rather than later.

Basically, staff members in the ER are always juggling a bunch of different tasks, so it’s easy for one or two things to fall through the cracks. As a result, you may have to “bird-dog” things until they get done.

And this isn’t true just in the emergency room. In any specialty, there will be similar situations where you need to kind of take charge, recognize what needs to get done, and be polite but persistent in talking to the right people until it happens.

Physician assistants need to be flexible, and adapt

I can’t emphasize this enough.

When you’re a PA, you work with supervising physicians. If you work in the ER like me, there are a lot of different supervising physicians you have to interact with. And each of them has their own preferences.

Adapting on the fly is a critical quality for PA’s

Some of them like to order a lot of tests, some of them like to order the fewest amount possible. Some of them are easy to talk to, some of them are difficult to approach. And so on.

Basically you have to not only kind of read their mind (which gets easier after a while), you also have to be willing to make adjustments and change things after the fact.

For example, when I discuss a particular patient’s care with the physician I’m working with, they may request that I order an additional test, cancel a test, or do something else completely different than the way I started.

It’s not that this is necessarily the right thing to do, or better for the patient (or anyone else). A lot of times, it just boils down to personal preference.

As a PA, you can’t take this kind of stuff personally. You have to be able to adapt to a wide variety of personalities, preferences, and styles.

Ultimately, this may be the most important personality trait for physician assistants.

PA’s need to be personable

As I mentioned, as a physician assistant you’ll be interacting with a lot of people. Physicians, other PA’s, nurses, technicians… Not to mention the patients!

It goes on and on. So you have to be able to relate to other people, and understand where they’re coming from. And you need to be down to earth enough that you can look at things from different points of view.

You’re not a computer programmer. You’re not just going to sit in front of a screen and type stuff (oh wait, actually you spend about half your time doing that). But because you work together with so many different people, it’s essential that you can be a human and know how to interact with other people effectively.

(This includes when they address you in a bunch of different ways.)

PA’s need to be good communicators

As I mentioned, you’ll be interacting with a lot of people!

And a lot of what you do is try to communicate clearly.

For example, when you’re talking to patients, you need to ask the right questions so you can figure out what’s going on with them and what tests or treatments you will need to do. Then, you need to explain things in a way that they can understand, and kind of “sell” them on the plan.

a physician assistant needs good communications skills
You’ll use all these skills as a PA

Similarly, when you’re talking to your supervising physician, you need to be able to explain things concisely yet clearly. And sometimes you’re kind of selling them on a plan of action as well.

In addition to all that, you also need to document your patients encounters in the medical record, which is a different kind of communication.

You also communicate with staff members. And in the ER, there are literally hundreds of different staff members you’ll get to know (if you work in multiple hospitals, like me). So you may have to adapt your communication style to different types of people.

Physician assistants need to be patient

There will be a lot of things that take longer than you would like. And sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.

So you can either be really uptight… Or you can be patient.

As I mentioned earlier, you need to take initiative to help move things along. But you also need to be relaxed enough to let things take their course once you’ve done what you can.

So it’s a fine balance really, between pushing things along and understanding that tests or treatments or other things will take time. Sometimes a lot more time than you would like them to!

Ultimately, you’ll be a lot more relaxed and satisfied with your job if you have a fair amount of patience.

It’s not only patients who need to be patient. 🙂


Being a physician assistant isn’t easy. And it’s not for everyone.

You really do need to have (or develop) a few key qualities in order to be successful.

And these aren’t qualities that everyone has naturally.

Even once you start working, you’ll see that some PA’s exemplify these characteristics a lot more than others.

What qualities make a good physician assistant?

Assertiveness, communication skills, flexibility, and willingness to adapt are some of the most important qualities.

These are not the only ones, obviously. But they’re certainly worth focusing on.

And if you do that, you’ll be well on your way to succeeding as a PA. 🙂

Another way to learn what makes a good PA? Go shadow a physician assistant (or a few of them)!