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Questions that Physician Associate Students Get Asked ALL the Time

Physician Associate Studies is a very new discipline which many people have never heard of, and those who have heard of it often don’t understand what it is. I’ve learnt this through my experiences with students from other disciplines; the look on their face when you tell them what you study is priceless. Some look at you vacantly, others ask “what on earth is physician associate studies?!” and more often than not, out come the questions that us PA students hear all the time. Here are some of the most common:


So, What Job Will You Have When You Qualify?

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I will be a physician associate.

I can understand why people don’t make the assumption that PA studies leads to a job as a PA. This is probably because physician associates are a new profession and so not many people have heard of them.

Hopefully, as PAs become more commonplace, the association between PA studies and practicing as a physician associate will be as natural as knowing that students taking the bar exam usually become barristers and students taking a PGCE become teachers.              


What Background Do You Have?

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Most PA students will have an undergraduate degree in a life science or biological science. Others may have a degree from a completely different area plus experience of working in health care.


Where Will You Work When You Qualify?

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Physician associates can work in a variety of areas. Some will work in primary care alongside GPs, while others will work in hospitals in areas such as emergency medicine, cardiology, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology or neurology.


Can You Prescribe Medication?

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Not at the moment, but this could change in the future.


Who Regulates You?

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At the moment physician associates are still a very new role, and discussions are still taking place to decide which organisation will be our governing body. It will most likely be the General Medical Council.


Are You Doing PA studies Because You Couldn’t Get onto a Medicine Degree?

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Personally, no. I have never applied to study medicine, nor have many of my coursemates. For us, PA studies is a step-up from where we currently are in our careers.

For example, nurses and healthcare support workers can become PAs if they have an interest in diagnosing and managing conditions from a medical approach. However, for some people who have not been successful in gaining a place on a medicine degree, PA studies provides an alternative route into a career in medicine.


So, You’re Basically a Doctor Who Doesn’t Get Paid as Much?

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No. Physician associates are not doctors.

They’re trained to work using the medical model, like doctors do, which means being able to examine patients, take histories, come up with a list of possible diagnoses and know which tests to carry out to rule out or confirm a diagnosis.

However, physician associates are not as specialised as doctors. We are trained to diagnose and manage the most common conditions that we are likely to encounter in a health care setting (these are set out in a matrix of core clinical conditions), but we don’t diagnose or manage more rare and complex conditions.

Importantly, we’re trained to recognise when we need to refer a patient to a more senior member of the medical team, and we can often keep the patient stable until they can be seen by a doctor.


Will You Be Taking Jobs from Doctors?


Again, no.

Physician associates aren’t designed to be able to take on the role of a doctor; the role complements the existing structure of medical teams both in primary and secondary care.

For example, in a GP setting, PAs will be able to see patients with conditions specified in the matrix of conditions, thus freeing up the GP’s time to see patients with more complex conditions and comorbidities. Conditions PAs could deal with in a GP practice could include obesity, depression, hypertension, chest infections, asthma, gastro-intestinal complaints and contraception.


Do You Learn on the Job or in a Classroom?

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All physician associate studies courses vary from university to university, but there are rules set out that define how much time we must spend on theory and how much time we must spend on clinical placement. They also determine where we should carry out our ‘on-the-job’ learning; the 1600 required clinical hours are spent in general practise, emergency medicine, general medicine (cardiovascular, respiratory, GI etc.), obstetrics and gynaecology, paediatrics, general surgery and mental health.

For more information about physician associates, visit the Faculty of Physician Associates website.

Until next time,



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