A Primer in PA Certification
With more than 100,000 physician assistants in practice, medical staff leaders must familiarize themselves with the profession, including ways to assess competence, state laws regarding licensure, and the certification process.
This article is excerpted from an article originally published on the Credentialing Resource Center, May 8, 2017.
Upon completing an accredited PA program, PAs must pass a certification examination in order to become licensed to practice. Those who pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) are issued the Physician Assistant—Certified (PA-C) credential by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). All states require PAs to be initially certified by NCCPA in order to practice. However, like physicians, recertification is a gray area—not all states/healthcare organizations require maintenance of certification.
PAs who have never been certified are eligible to take PANCE for up to six years after completing their educational program. During that six-year period, PANCE may be taken a total of six times. When either the six attempts or six years are up, the individual loses eligibility to take the exam. At that point, the PA must complete a full-length, accredited PA educational program again.
“For students who have sat through 2.5–3 years’ program of education, that certification exam is like a culminating event. It brings together their entire curriculum and entire clinical training,” says Dawn Morton-Rias, Ed.D, PA-C, president & CEO of NCCPA.
“In a way it serves the same purpose as physician certification. Back in the day, there were general practitioners. Now when people say they are board-certified physicians, it puts another layer on their expertise. I think the same is true for PAs,” says Ann Davis, MS, PA-C, vice president of constituent organization outreach and advocacy for the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA).
The PANCE certification is not specialty-specific; instead it assesses basic medical and surgical knowledge. Daniel Pace, chief strategy officer/vice president of education and research for AAPA, says that this generalist certification has allowed PAs to be adaptable to the changing needs of the healthcare system. “The fact that a PA can be certified and work in one specialty and then move to another specialty where there may be a shortage has always been an asset to individual PAs and the healthcare system.”
Organizations must decide how they will use certification when assessing the competence of PAs.