Physician Assistant

Physician Assistant Skills (With Competencies Checklist)

By June 25, 2020No Comments
Medical Tools and Ribbons

Whether you’re considering a career as a physician assistant or have graduated from a master’s degree physician assistant program and are interested in what health care practices are looking for, it’s good to know you have the skills to be a PA.

The role of the physician assistant is growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the job outlook is better than average, with a projected growth of 31% from 2018 to 2028.

More medical practices and healthcare systems are seeking talented and skilled PAs to fill gaps left by physician shortages and rising patient numbers. These are the skills you’ll need to practice as a physician assistant.

Crucial Physician Assistant Attributes

While in your educational program, you’ll be educated and trained to care for patients through diagnosis, treatment, and management of patient care. But, it is crucial you also acquire additional skills and attributes to be successful.

These skills might not be taught in school or even listed in your physician assistant job description, but your healthcare practice will expect you to have them. When you know what’s expected, you can pick up these attributes on your own and then can communicate them in your job interviews.

Medical Competence

To receive your licensure, you’ll be tested on your medical knowledge during your Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

These skills are essential since the autonomy you function under is a direct relationship to the competence you demonstrate to your supervising physician in clinical practice. In other words, the broader the range of responsibilities you demonstrate, the greater freedom your physician will likely give you to practice.

Understanding of Complex Patient Presentations

With patient care, it is important to demonstrate your ability to synthesize pathophysiology, clinical presentation, patient management, health promotion, and disease prevention. These challenges are not presented as a single question in the way they might be in your PANCE.

Rather, you’ll experience them in a complex patient presentation you will need to assess, diagnose, and treat. This happens in every specialty from internal medicine to emergency medicine.

Medicine and Vial

Investigative and Analytical Mind

Successful physician assistants bring an investigative mind and analytical thinking to clinical situations. This enables them to evaluate a patient’s signs and symptoms, and determine a customized approach to care through testing, treatment, and management specific to their individual needs.

Foundational Knowledge

There are foundational principles physician assistants must understand and apply in their practice to each patient seeking care. These principles include:

  • Evidence-Based Practice: history and physical, diagnostic tests for differential diagnosis
  • Medical Conditions: etiology, risk factors, pathology, epidemiology
  • Medical/Surgical Conditions: signs and symptoms, treatment modalities, surgical procedures
  • Diagnostic Studies: recognizing patterns, identifying interventions, validity of results
  • Screening: detect conditions in asymptomatic individuals, disease prevention and health promotion

Professional Abilities

Your relationship with the healthcare staff working alongside you carries a set of professional and behavioral expectations that may not be articulated in school or under the supervision of a physician. It’s important to develop genuine self-awareness to understand the implicit and explicit expectations. This helps ensure your success while working in healthcare.

Practice-Based Learning and Improvement

In this process, a physician assistant engages in a critical analysis of their own experience. Taken together with medical literature, evaluations, and other informational sources, a PA uses these tools for self-improvement and to better their practice skills.

Practice-based learning also includes being able to read medical studies and statistics while generalizing them to their practice setting. Physician assistants must also be self-aware to identify personal biases that may interfere with their practice and identify knowledge gaps while being able to address both.

System-Based Practice

The expectation is that physician assistants will have an awareness of, and responsiveness to, the fact that they are practicing in a larger healthcare system. It is vital to provide healthcare services that balance quality and cost while protecting the privacy of the patient. Physician assistants are expected to work to improve the healthcare system through:

  • Interacting with other medical practices and third-party payers
  • Practicing cost-effective care and responsible resource utilization
  • Partnering with other healthcare providers to improve the effectiveness of care and patient outcomes
  • Accepting responsibility for their actions

Brain and Arrows

Critical Thinking

Physician assistants are expected to analyze their own strengths and weaknesses in their approach to patient care. Critical thinking requires you to clearly and rationally understand logical connections and engage in reflective and independent thinking demonstrating problem-solving. This is a vital skill! Critical thinking allows you to work autonomously and provide the best care possible to your patients.


Physician assistants are expected to function at a high level of responsibility and prioritize the interests of their patients above their own. This may seem obvious, but it can present unique challenges in your healthcare practice.

As a professional, it is necessary to understand the legal and regulatory requirements of the job and to treat other healthcare professionals with respect and as competent providers. This means avoiding behavior such as gossip, undermining, and substance abuse.

Soft Skills

Soft skills are a combination of people skills, social skills, and personality traits. These are not taught with your bachelor’s degree but are necessary to learn to be a successful PA. These skills are more difficult to find and evaluate. However, you will likely be asked questions in your interview regarding your soft skills. During this time, you can share stories that demonstrate your abilities in these areas.

Interpersonal Communication Skills

You have likely heard of the need and necessity for strong interpersonal skills and communication skills in healthcare services. A physician assistant spends much of the day interacting with patients, listening to their concerns, communicating advice, and interacting with other healthcare providers. Thus, strong communication skills are a must.

Interpersonal and communication skills include verbal, nonverbal, and written skills. You must have active listening skills to understand what the patient is communicating and ensure they feel heard. As you communicate with your patients, you exchange information that creates a therapeutic relationship and an understanding of human behavior.

Stress Management

Working in healthcare is definitely stressful and challenging. Physician assistants work around patients with complex medical problems, which creates greater stress than most other jobs. Plus, when you work in healthcare, there’s always the potential for burnout and compassion fatigue.

Healthcare practices want to know you can handle stress and demonstrate a healthy work-life balance. Doing both of these reduce the risk that you will experience burnout and, consequently, affect the overhead for the medical practice. Most healthcare practices do not treat you as simply an asset but are truly concerned with your physical and mental health.

Herbal Tea and BookDetail-Oriented

As you likely know from your clinical training, paying close attention to small details is an important aspect of practicing medicine. If you miss a small detail, such as an allergy, it can result in unwanted outcomes for a patient. Physician assistants are expected to be detail-oriented and able to communicate those details to other providers.


Caring for patients all day requires you to have a genuine love for others. Without compassion, it is difficult to perform physical examinations, diagnose, treat, and care for others without suffering burn out quickly. You must be compassionate to succeed in the physician assistant profession.

Independent and Team Player

When a physician assistant is capable, much of the decision making is done independently. You will have the opportunity to collaborate with others on the healthcare team, but you also must have the confidence and knowledge to make decisions on your own.

In primary care, family medicine, and all other specialties, PAs are expected to work together with others on the patient’s healthcare team. These healthcare providers include insurance case managers, community social workers, supervising physicians, MDs, NPs, RNs, medical assistants, receptionists, and more. In other words, you work independently and as a team player nearly every day.


The need to work with many providers across the healthcare spectrum and adjust to changing circumstances means physician assistants must be adaptable. You may find yourself focused on one task then have to immediately shift focus to another task.

This is the reality of real-world medical practice, and you will have only seconds to adapt. Patients and situations are unpredictable, so it’s important to be able to shift gears quickly and easily.

PA Profession Competency Checklist

We’ve covered the skills necessary to practice as a successful physician assistant. Now’s your chance to see how you stack up. Below is a checklist you can use to do a self-evaluation on each of the skills. Using the descriptions above, determine if your skills need improvement, are acceptable or are outstanding.

Take care to thoroughly and honestly evaluate yourself. If you don’t answer honestly, the only person you’ll hurt is yourself. And, realistically, this is one of the skills you’ll need as a physician assistant: honest self-assessment.


Needs Improvement Acceptable Excellent
Medical Skills (overall)
Understanding of Complex Patient Presentations
Investigative and Analytical Mind
Foundational Knowledge
Professional Skills (Overall)
Practice-Based Learning
System-Based Learning
Critical Thinking
Soft Skills (Overall)
Interpersonal Communication
Stress Management
Independent & Collaborative

Health Practices Need Qualified Physician Assistants

Your qualifications to see and treat patients do not begin and end with your physician assistant education. Healthcare practices and hospitals are looking for well-rounded physician assistants who can interact successfully with patients, so patients feel heard and understood.

It’s necessary to think critically about symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and management, as well as to adapt to changing situations and understand the need for continuing education and development. When you can develop these qualities and communicate them in your interview, you will significantly improve your chances of being hired.