Four Common Questions about Physician Assistants, Answered


Erin Anderson, PA-C

Erin Anderson, PA-C

At South Shore Health, you will likely see a physician assistant (PA) when receiving care. PAs are highly-trained, licensed clinicians that are a key part of your healthcare team. They’re categorized as Advance Practice Clinicians, which also includes certified nurse midwives and nurse practitioners (NPs). 

The PA profession arose in the 1960s, when highly skilled Navy corpsman were coming home from deployments with advanced medical skills, but were unable to find employment. Dr. Eugene Stead, of Duke University Medical Center, created the physician assistant curriculum based on the accelerated training of doctors during WWII, and thus the profession was born. 

Today, there are now more than 123,000 certified PAs in the United States. They can be found working in nearly every specialty, with most PAs choosing to go into primary care, surgical subspecialties coming up a close second, followed by emergency medicine. 

I’ve been a PA at South Shore Medical Center for four years, and know many patients have questions about what I do in my role.

Here are some answers to common questions I hear from new patients.

What is a PA’s training?
PA school is sometimes referred to as “three quarters of medical school in half the time.”

It is a graduate program, usually structured as a year of intensive classroom study across a wide variety of medical topics, followed by clinical rotations in which aspiring PAs get a full year (or more) of hands-on patient care experience.

PAs are exposed to every medical setting: ER, primary care, inpatient, psychiatry, women’s health, and more, and get to participate in the full spectrum of patient care. 

What’s the difference between a PA and an MD?
Our schooling provides PAs great training and experience, but our depth of education doesn’t quite match that of doctors. We also cannot practice without the supervision of a doctor, except in very rare cases like rural and remote clinics. We cannot perform surgery, but we can assist in it. We review cases and charts with our supervising physician and are meant to be an extension of their practice, not a replacement for it. 

What does a PA do?
Here at South Shore Health, PAs see patients and make medical decisions autonomously, but we always have our supervising physicians to collaborate with, in a collegial, team-based model.

Physician assistants work with supervising physicians to:

  • Provide preventive care 
  • Admit and discharge patients 
  • Provide care in the emergency department 
  • Assist in surgery 
  • Consult with specialists
  • And much more 


What role do PAs play at South Shore Medical Center?
Physician assistants work closely with your South Shore Medical Center doctors as part of your primary care team. Typically, each doctor works with a specific PA or NP, so patients can build a relationship with both providers. We tend to have a little more flexibility in our schedules for sick visits, so if you need a last-minute appointment, you’ll often end up seeing a PA or NP. You can always follow up with your primary care physician if you have more questions.

You may worry that you’re missing out by not seeing your doctor every time you visit, but physician assistants and other advanced practice clinicians are an important part of your care team, and are always there to support your health.

To learn more about primary care at South Shore Health, click here