Physician Assistants: What Every Patient Should Know

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

A physician assistant (PA) is a medical professional who works as part of a team with a doctor. Physician assistants provide a valuable service to medical practices and enable busy physicians’ offices to evaluate and treat more patients. However, patients should be aware of certain things if they are being treated by a physician assistant, especially if they think they may be a victim of medical malpractice. First, a physician assistant is NOT a medical doctor. A physician assistant is a graduate of an accredited physician assistant educational program who is nationally certified and state-licensed to practice medicine with the SUPERVISION of a physician. Second, while every physician assistant practicing in the state of Pennsylvania must have a primary supervising physician or a substitute supervising physician, that physician does not have to be physically present for the treatment by a PA. Supervising physicians must countersign all patient records completed by a physician assistant within a reasonable period of time, not to exceed 10 days. The physician assistant must report orally or in writing to the supervising physician within 36 hours the medical regimens prescribed while the supervising physician was not physically present. Third, physician assistants cannot bill independently for their treatment or service. PAs perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret lab tests, perform certain procedures, assist in surgery, provide patient education and counseling and make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes. They also make entries in the patient medical record. Fourth, even when a patient is being treated by a PA, the supervising physician or substitute physician remains legally liable for the treatment rendered by the physician assistant. This means the supervising physician may be responsible for any medical malpractice of his or her PA. This provides an important incentive to the physician to be sure his or her physician assistant is competent and adheres to current standards of care. According to Pennsylvania law, a physician assistant is the agent of the supervising physician in the performance of practice-related activities, and the supervising physician accepts full professional and legal responsibility for the performance of the physician assistant and the care and treatment of patients. Fifth, the patient has certain rights when being treated by a physician assistant. A patient must be informed that the person rendering treatment is not a medical doctor but rather is a PA. While being treated by a physician assistant, the patient can require the supervising physician to review the patient’s progress and response to the treatment. Most importantly, the patient has the right to be treated by the physician if the patient desires.