The role of a physician assistantMay 16, 2016
The role of a physician assistant is relatively new – there are only around 35 licensed physician assistants in Australia – although countries such as the US and UK have been using them since the 1950s! It is, however, an increasingly popular career choice for those wishing to work with patients, but not shoulder the responsibilities of a doctor.
What does the role involve?
The main things that you might expect to do as a physician assistant include:
- Visiting patients in hospital or at home, performing examinations and administering some of their treatment
- Taking medical histories from patients and requesting diagnostic studies to be completed
- Acting as first assist on operations, which can involve preparing someone for surgery, helping during the procedure and closing incisions
- Performing routine examinations
- Providing health promotion and disease prevention advice
- Taking blood and inserting cannulas and nasogastric tubes
- Teaching (if you want to)
What can’t a physician assistant do?
Physician assistants are only able to perform minor surgical procedures, i.e. from the muscle layer up. They also can’t prescribe medication themselves, which means prescriptions must be signed off by a doctor or consultant.
What skills and qualifications do you need?
In Australia, there are currently two universities that offer a pathway into physician assistant training: one of them is a three-year bachelor’s degree at James Cook University, and one is a 1.5-year master’s degree at the University of Queensland. As this role is particularly important within isolated communities with fewer doctors, some of your training will involve considering issues related to rural medicine and community healthcare.
Physician assistants register with the Australian Society of Physician Assistants (ASPA). As well as having the required academic qualifications, physician assistants also need to be approachable and friendly – after all, they deal with a large number of patients. The career would also suit an adaptive person who enjoys completing a variety of different tasks within a role. While physician assistants do not have as many responsibilities as doctors, they will still need to think on their feet and make decisions about diagnosis and treatment.
The benefits of the role
There are plenty of benefits to being a physician assistant. Here are just a few:
- The salary – physician assistants are still relatively well-paid, with a starting salary of approximately AUS $80,000.
- The demand – the role is becoming increasingly popular, and you are likely to have even better career prospects in the future.
- It’s hands-on – you’ll be working in core areas of the hospital in a patient-centred environment
- You do not need to go to medical school – becoming a physician assistant may be a great choice if you are having trouble getting into medical school, but still have a strong science background (such as a degree in biomedical science). You can train in less time and still work in patient care.
How to prepare to become a physician assistant
As with anyone wishing to enter a medical profession, universities look very favourably upon experience in healthcare, whether that be voluntary or paid work. This could include devoting some time to an organisation such as the St. John Ambulance, or working in a nursing home or community centre.
Another way to gain vital experience is to join a job-shadowing program with an experiential learning company like Gap Medics. Gap Medics runs physician assistant work experience placements at all of our overseas destinations. By joining our physician assistant program, you can gain valuable insight into the role – helping you to decide whether becoming a physician assistant is the right career choice for you.
Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.