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What Type of Doctor Is a PAC?

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The PAC medical abbreviation stands for “physician assistant - certified.” Although you may hear people refer to a “pa-c doctor,” these health professionals are not actually physicians, although they perform many of the same basic functions.

Job Description

PACs offer preventive care, diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, and help patients keep chronic health conditions under control. They see patients on their own but work under the supervision of a physician. In some cases, the supervising doctor may work in a distant location and communicate with the PAC via videoconferencing or phone calls.

PACs work anywhere doctors are employed. You’ll find them in private practices, hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, urgent care centers and other healthcare facilities. Duties vary depending on the practice. A PAC who works in a plastic surgery practice may assist in surgery, while a physician assistant employed at a psychiatric practice may provide mental health assessments.

No matter what the specialty or sub-specialty, PACs may:

  • Obtain medical histories.
  • Examine patients and develop diagnoses.
  • Prescribe medications.
  • Offer preventive care.
  • Make referrals to specialists.
  • Order diagnostic tests.
  • Visit hospitalized patients.
  • Coordinate patient care with other doctors or healthcare facilities.
  • Perform basic procedures, such as draining abscesses or removing suspicious moles.
  • Assist in surgery.

If you’re considering a job in the health care field, you may wondering about the differences between a physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner. Although both professionals perform similar functions, nurse practitioners must hold nursing degrees and have previous nursing experience before they begin a nurse practitioner master’s degree program. Although PACs are trained in all areas of medicine, a nurse practitioner focuses on a specific group of people, such as children or senior citizens.

Education and Training

A physician assistant candidate must obtain a bachelor’s degree before applying to a graduate program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. After successful completion of the two- to three-year program, a new physician assistant will be awarded a master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies, Health Sciences or Medical Sciences, depending on which name the school uses.

Admission to physician assistant programs is very competitive. Prospective students must have high undergraduate grade point averages, good grades in upper level sciences, and excellent scores on the Graduate Record Examination or Medical School Admissions Exam. Previous experience in the medical field can boost your chances of acceptance to a physician assistant program, whether you’ve worked as an emergency medical technician, nurse, radiology technician or medical assistant.

During their schooling, physician assistant program students take classes in a variety of subjects, including anatomy and physiology, clinical procedures, pharmacology, pediatrics, internal medicine and community medicine. They also spend approximately 2,000 hours in clinical rotations that cover emergency medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, family medicine, psychiatry, internal medicine and other specialties.

After graduating from a master’s program, a new physician assistant becomes certified by passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. Passing the test is a condition of employment for new physician assistants and a requirement for state licensure.

Classes don’t end when PACs graduate. Keeping their certifications current depends on completing 100 continuing medical education hours every two years and passing recertification exams every 10 years.

Salary and Job Outlook

The median annual salary for physician assistants was $104, 860 per year, as of May 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The demand for PACs is expected to grow 37 percent by 2026, which the BLS notes is much faster than average.


Holly McGurgan has a degree in journalism and previously worked as a non-profit public relations and communications manager. She often writes about career and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared online on Healthline, Working for Candy and other sites.

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