A message from NCCPA's President/CEO, Dawn Morton-Rias, Ed.D, PA-C.

About Us: Purpose and Passion

NCCPA's Purpose and Passion

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants is the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States. Established as a not-for-profit organization in 1974, NCCPA is dedicated to assuring the public that certified PAs meet established standards of clinical knowledge and cognitive skills upon entry into practice and throughout their careers. All U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories have decided to rely on NCCPA certification as one of the criteria for licensure or regulation of PAs. As of Dec. 31, 2020, there were approximately 148,500 Certified PAs.

Our Purpose

To provide certification programs that reflect standards for clinical knowledge, clinical reasoning and other medical skills and professional behaviors required upon entry into practice and throughout the careers of PAs.

Our Passion

NCCPA is dedicated to serving the interest of the public. We do so with a passionate belief that certified PAs are essential members of the health care delivery team who provide millions access to more affordable, high quality health care.

A Brief History

In the 1960s specialization in American medicine was accelerating while, at the same time, demand for primary care services was vastly increased by the passage of Medicare and Medicaid. Eugene A Stead, Jr., MD, Chair of the Department of Medicine at Duke University, perceived the need for a midlevel health practitioner, whose function would be of a generalist nature, to complement the services and skills of physicians, especially among underserved inner-city and rural populations.

Aware of the growing number of corpsmen being discharged from military service without opportunity to apply their skills in a civilian occupation, Dr. Stead in 1965 enrolled four ex-Navy corpsmen to a new program to train “physician’s assistants.”  This intensive two-year program gained widespread attention throughout the country. Fueled by Federal and foundation funding, the concept was quickly emulated by other academic institutions, both public and private.  While many drew upon the pool of former corpsmen, candidates for training were drawn from a variety of other backgrounds, as well, and proved to be equally successful.

Having gained approval for the concept from organized medicine, collaboration began to take place among medical specialty societies, educators, regulatory bodies, the Federal government, and the graduates themselves that led to the development of the structural elements of a new profession:

In May of 1968 the graduates and students at Duke University took the lead in establishing a professional association of PAs that was to become the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA).

In 1971 the Council on Medical Education of the American Medical Association, together with four primary care specialty societies, developed “Essentials of an Accredited Educational Program for the Assistant to the Primary Care Physician” that was adopted by the House of Delegates of the AMA in November, 1971. The collaborating organizations then formed the Joint Review Committee for Educational Programs for the Assistant to the Primary Care Physician (JRC-PA).  It began accrediting PA programs in June, 1972.

Upon the recommendation of its Committee on Goals and Priorities, the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME), in March, 1972, approved the development of a certifying examination for “the assistant to the primary care physician.” It was the first time that the NBME had engaged in examining any health professional other than physicians. An advisory committee was appointed, a “role delineation study” undertaken, and task forces created to refine components, and construct a blueprint for test committees that created the substance of the examination, which was first administered to 880 candidates in December, 1973.

In April, 1972, at the 4th national conference, hosted by Duke University, several PA training programs came together as “charter members” to form an Association of Physician Assistant Programs, later renamed the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA). The purposes were to provide a regular forum for exchange of information among programs; and to inform relevant groups about progress in physician assistant education.

Recognizing a need for an independent, broad-based organization to attest to the qualifications of trained PAs, and following a preliminary discussion in 1973, the AMA and the NBME convened a meeting in Chicago in August, 1974, of 14 national organizations to form a National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)Among the groups represented were the major medical specialty societies, state licensing authorities, education associations, government agencies, and the existing PA organizations. While the NBME would continue to develop and administer a certifying examination, the NCCPA would assume the responsibility for the requirements for eligibility, the setting of a passing standard, and other conditions for initial certification and periodic recertification. The NCCPA would issue certificates, and become the conduit to state regulatory agencies.

Within the next few months, staff had been recruited, and an office opened in Atlanta in December, 1974. Certificates to those who had passed the initial Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) in 1973 and 1974 were issued in 1975, designating the successful candidate as a “Physician Assistant – Certified” (PA-C). Recipients needed to fulfill continuing education requirements every two years, and be recertified by examination every six years.

As the PA profession has evolved, so has NCCPA and the certification process. In 2002, NCCPA initiated an effort - ultimately joined by AAPA, PAEA, and the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) - to establish a profession-wide definition of PA competencies throughout a PA's career. That effort led to the publication of Competencies for the Physician Assistant Profession in 2005. Subsequently various NCCPA committees and staff have evaluated NCCPA's certification and certification maintenance processes to determine how those processes may be modified to assess, incorporate, or foster a broader range of the identified PA competencies. In 2011, the Board approved the addition of new directed CME requirements related to self-assessment and performance improvement activities and an extension of the recertification cycle from six to 10 years; PAs began transitioning to the new process in 2014. 

In 2009, the NCCPA Board of Directors brought to conclusion in some ways nearly 30 years of discussion when they provided the final approval for NCCPA to launch a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) program to recognize PAs’ experience and knowledge in certain specialty areas. Today CAQs are offered in cardiovascular/thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, hospital medicine, nephrology, orthopaedic surgery, pediatrics and psychiatry. To earn a CAQ, PAs must be NCCPA certified and have a valid state license (or comparable authorization to practice); meet specialty specific requirements related to CME, experience, and procedures and patient-case management; and pass a specialty exam. The first specialty CAQ exams were administered in September 2011.

NCCPA has earned accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). The NCCA is the accrediting arm of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE). Established in 1977 as a nonprofit organization, ICE is a leader in setting quality standards for certifying organizations. In 2007, NCCPA received the Georgia Oglethorpe Award for performance excellence and was the first non-profit organization in the state to receive this distinguished recognition. The Georgia Oglethorpe Board of Examiners said of NCCPA, "Commitment to customer satisfaction is pervasive and systematic through the organizational processes. In this manner, the organization can meet and exceed its goal of being responsive, innovative and effective in addressing the interest of the public and other stakeholders."

Imbued with a strong sense of responsibility to assure that PAs meet professional standards of knowledge and skills, NCCPA will continue to strive to meet the needs of its stakeholders efficiently, effectively and honorably.