Scheduled to See a Physician Assistant (PA)?

You’re in good hands with care from a physician assistant
physician assistant speaking to patient

Contributors: Michael A. Dombrowski, MS, PA-C and Josanne K. Pagel, MPAS, PA-C

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Have you ever been offered an appointment with a PA? When you come home, maybe you tell your spouse, and it goes something like this:

I saw a “PA” today.

What’s that?     

A physician assistant.

OK, what’s that?

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A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who works with a doctor as part of his or her medical team. They are graduates of an accredited PA educational program, and are nationally certified and licensed by the State Medical Board to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. As PAs become more proficient, they often work with indirect or off-site supervision. To help with a busy doctor’s schedule they can work with autonomy to provide patients more immediate access to care.

The PA profession was introduced at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., under the direction of Eugene Stead, MD, a visionary in the early 1960s. Dr. Stead saw the shortage of primary physicians at the time and recognized a need a medically trained provider to assist them. In October 1967, the first class of PAs graduated, their training modeled after the expedited medical training of physicians after World War II.

Today, PA education is modeled after medical school curriculum with both classroom and clinical training.  The average length of a PA program is 27 months, which includes more than 2,000 hours of clinical experience. Upon completion, PA programs award a Master’s Degree of Physician Assistant Studies. 

In the medical setting

PAs evaluate patients, order and interpret tests, diagnose, treat and prescribe medications. In specialty practices such as Orthopaedics, PAs also serve as the first assistant to the surgeon during an operation.   After specialty training and work to receive privileges from the institution where they practice, PAs may also perform more advanced procedures.  In Orthopaedics and Rheumatology, this includes joint, bursa or soft tissue injections.

There are currently 22 PA caregivers in Cleveland Clinic’s Orthopaedic & Rheumatologic Institute (ORI) working within several subspecialties. Our PAs work with pediatric and adult patients. They work in sports medicine, in the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Center, in adult reconstruction (total joint replacements), with tumor patients and in general orthopaedics. A PA will gather patient histories and perform physicals on patients for pre-surgical clearance. They also have clinics where they evaluate new patients, established patients and those coming in for post-operative visits.  

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While the majority of their time is spent as a medical provider, PAs also have other important roles.  You may hear them say they are simply ”caregivers” because they often serve as confidants, facilitators and educators as well as that friendly face in the OR on surgery day (especially for pediatric patients).

There are many roles a PA takes on to provide quality accessible care to our patients. Together with our physicians, PAs are making a difference in healthcare.

For more information on the PA profession, visit the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) website at

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