Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
Physician Assistant Program
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Physician Assistant Competencies

The National Commission on Accreditation of Physician Assistants, the Accreditation Review Commission for Education of the Physician Assistant, the Physician Assistant Education Association and the American Academy of Physician Assistants have combined efforts to produce Competencies for the Physician Assistant Profession. This document was adopted as policy by the May 2005 House of Delegates of the American Academy of Physician Assistants and serves as a map for the individual PA, the physician-PA team and organizations that are committed to promoting the development and maintenance of the professional competencies among physician assistants.

The PA profession defines the specific knowledge, skills and attitude required and provides educational experiences as needed in order for physician assistants to acquire and demonstrate these competencies.

 Medical Knowledge

Medical knowledge includes an understanding of pathophysiology, patient presentation, differential diagnosis, patient management, surgical principles, health promotion and disease prevention. Physician assistants must demonstrate core knowledge about established and evolving biomedical and clinical sciences and the application of this knowledge to patient care in their area of practice. In addition, physician assistants are expected to demonstrate an investigatory and analytic thinking approach to clinical situations. Physician assistants are expected to:

  • Understand etiologies, risk factors, underlying pathologic process and epidemiology for medical conditions
  • Identify signs and symptoms of medical conditions
  • Select and interpret appropriate diagnostic or lab studies
  • Manage general medical and surgical conditions to include understanding the indications, contraindications, side effects, interactions and adverse reactions of pharmacologic agents and other relevant treatment modalities
  • Identify the appropriate site of care for presenting conditions, including identifying emergent cases and those requiring referral or admission
  • Identify appropriate interventions for prevention of conditions
  • Identify the appropriate methods to detect conditions in an asymptomatic individual
  • Differentiate between the normal and the abnormal in anatomic, physiological, laboratory findings and other diagnostic data
  • Appropriately use history and physical findings and diagnostic studies to formulate a differential diagnosis
  • Provide appropriate care to patients with chronic conditions

 Interpersonal & Communication Skills

Interpersonal and communication skills encompass verbal, nonverbal and written exchange of information. Physician assistants must demonstrate interpersonal and communication skills that result in effective information exchange with patients, their patients’ families, physicians, professional associates and the healthcare system. Physician assistants are expected to:

  • Create and sustain a therapeutic and ethically sound relationship with patients
  • Use effective listening, nonverbal, explanatory, questioning and writing skills to elicit and provide information
  • Appropriately adapt communication style and messages to the context of the individual patient interaction
  • Work effectively with physicians and other healthcare professionals as a member or leader of a healthcare team or other professional group
  • Apply an understanding of human behavior
  • Demonstrate emotional resilience and stability, adaptability, flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity and anxiety
  • Accurately and adequately document and record information regarding the care process for medical, legal, quality and financial purposes

 Patient Care

Patient care includes age-appropriate assessment, evaluation and management. Physician assistants must demonstrate care that is effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient and equitable for the treatment of health problems and the promotion of wellness. Physician assistants are expected to:

  • Work effectively with physicians and other healthcare professionals to provide patient-centered care
  • Demonstrate caring and respectful behaviors when interacting with patients and their families
  • Gather essential and accurate information about their patients
  • Make informed decisions about diagnostic and therapeutic interventions based on patient information and preferences, up-to-date scientific evidence and clinical judgment
  • Develop and carry out patient management plans
  • Counsel and educate patients and their families
  • Competently perform medical and surgical procedures considered essential in the area of practice
  • Provide healthcare services and education aimed at preventing health problems or maintaining health


Professionalism is the expression of positive values and ideals as care is delivered. Foremost, it involves prioritizing the interests of those being served above one’s own. Physician assistants must know their professional and personal limitations. Professionalism also requires that PAs practice without impairment from substance abuse, cognitive deficiency or mental illness. Physician assistants must demonstrate a high level of responsibility, ethical practice, sensitivity to a diverse patient population and adherence to legal and regulatory requirements. Physician assistants are expected to demonstrate:

  • Understanding of legal and regulatory requirements, as well as the appropriate role of the physician assistant
  • Professional relationships with physician supervisors and other health care providers respect, compassion and integrity
  • Responsiveness to the needs of patients and society
  • Accountability to patients, society and the profession
  • Commitment to excellence and ongoing professional development
  • Commitment to ethical principles pertaining to provision or withholding of clinical care, confidentiality of patient information, informed consent and business practices
  • Sensitivity and responsiveness to patients’ culture, age, gender and disabilities
  • Self-reflection, critical curiosity and initiative

 Practice-Based Learning & Improvement

Practice-based learning and improvement includes the processes through which clinicians engage in critical analysis of their own practice experience, medical literature and other information resources for the purpose of self-improvement. Physician assistants must be able to assess, evaluate and improve their patient care practices. Physician assistants are expected to:

  • Analyze practice experience and perform practice-based improvement activities using a systematic methodology in concert with other members of the healthcare delivery team
  • Locate, appraise and integrate evidence from scientific studies related to their patients’ health problems
  • Obtain and apply information about their own population of patients and the larger population from which their patients are drawn
  • Apply knowledge of study designs and statistical methods to the appraisal of clinical studies and other information on diagnostic and therapeutic effectiveness
  • Apply information technology to manage information, access online medical information and support their own education
  • Facilitate the learning of students and/or other healthcare professionals
  • Recognize and appropriately address gender, cultural, cognitive, emotional and other biases; gaps in medical knowledge; and physical limitations in themselves and others

 Systems-Based Practice

Systems-based practice encompasses the societal, organizational and economic environments in which healthcare is delivered. Physician assistants must demonstrate an awareness of and responsiveness to the larger system of healthcare to provide patient care that is of optimal value. PAs should work to improve the larger healthcare system of which their practices are a part. Physician assistants are expected to:

  • Use information technology to support patient care decisions and patient education
  • Effectively interact with different types of medical practice and delivery systems
  • Understand the funding sources and payment systems that provide coverage for patient care
  • Practice cost-effective healthcare and resource allocation that does not compromise quality of care
  • Advocate for quality patient care and assist patients in dealing with system complexities
  • Partner with supervising physicians, healthcare managers and other healthcare providers to assess, coordinate and improve the delivery of healthcare and patient outcomes
  • Accept responsibility for promoting a safe environment for patient care and recognizing and correcting systems-based factors that negatively impact patient care
  • Apply medical information and clinical data systems to provide more effective, efficient patient care
  • Use the systems responsible for the appropriate payment of services
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