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What is a Physician Assistant?
Physician assistants work under the supervision of a qualified physician to provide care for patients through examination, intake, assistance during surgery, set bones, provide prescriptions, and a variety of other tasks. The limits of what a physician assistant may or may not do is dictated by the state and varies as a result. Physician assistants differ greatly from medical assistants due primarily to what functions they may perform, primarily the amount of actual treatment they may provide a given patient. A Physician Assistant or PA is a nationally certified, state-licensed medical professional that works on a healthcare team. After earning their state licensure, a PA is authorized to prescribe medications for a patient in nearly every state.
What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
A physician assistant is charged with providing a variety of health care services under the supervision of a licensed physician. While a physician assistant is often confused with a medical assistant, they are not the same profession. A medical assistant will check-up on patients, collect information, help draw blood, arrange lab tests, and a variety of other important yet routine tasks.
On the other hand, a physician assistant or PA will be responsible for a greater number of job responsibilities than a medical assistant in diagnostic medicine, therapeutic treatments, and preventative measures. Examples of the job duties of a PA may include the following:
- Prescribe medication
- Set a fractured bone, casting, suturing, and splinting
- Complete a physical examination
- Synthesize a patient’s medical history
- Educate patients with rehabilitation and preventative care
- Interpret lab results, electrocardiogram, and x-rays
- Treat an illness
- Make rounds in a hospital
- Assist an attending physician with a surgical procedure
- Supervise medical staff
- Order a lab test
- Manage inventory at clinic or hospital
- Help develop treatment plans
How to Become a Physician Assistant
There are five essential steps in the process to become a physician assistant you will need to carefully follow. We will outline them below to help you best understand the process to becoming a licensed PA.
- Preparation: This step includes students earning valuable work experience in the medical field coupled with meeting the minimum academic qualifications for a PA program at an accredited college or university. Work experience requirements can be met by working in a myriad number of positions in the medical field including: Medical Assistant, RN, EMT, Medical Assistant, Physical Therapist, Respiratory Therapist, CNA, LPN, LVN, Paramedic, Lab Assistant, or other approved vocations. Academic prerequisites will vary from school to school but will generally encompass a combination of anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, and microbiology.
- Matriculation: Attending an accredited, state-approved Physician Assistant program is the next step in the process towards your new career. Most PA programs are 2-3 year degree tracks with instruction in a variety of science-laden classes such as pharmacology, clinical labs, medical ethics, biochemistry, and pathophysiology. Most states will require a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical rotations at an approved long-term care facility, hospital, physician’s office, acute care facility, or ambulatory care center.
- Certification: At the completion of your ARC-PA accredited college coursework, you will be eligible to sit for a standardized test known as the PANCE. The PANCE stands for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination which is administered by the NCCPA. After successfully passing the PANCE you will earn a PA-C or Physician Assistant-Certified title.
- Licensure: Prior to working in the field, you will need apply for licensure from your state of residence after earning your PA degree and successfully passing the PANCE examination. A list of state licensing boards and state laws can be found on the AAPA website.
- Continuing Education: In order to maintain your physician assistant certification, you will need to complete 100 hours of CME credits every two years along with a recertification every ten years known as the PANRE.
Every state requires PA’s to complete a formal training program at an accredited higher education institution. The admission requirements for a physician assistant program will vary from school to school, yet most will require students to have at least two years of college and substantive work experience in the medical field prior to matriculation in a bachelor’s degree program or master’s degree program. Prior work experience may include time as a Registered Nurse, EMT, Paramedic, Medical Assistant, Physical Therapist, Respiratory Therapist, Certified Nurse Assistant, or LPN.
Coursework for a physician assistant will be split between liberal arts classes and core curriculum. General education courses such as math, social sciences, English, and psychology are designed to help broaden and deepen a student’s thinking. The next set of classes are science-rich, core PA courses designed to immerse students into the world of a PA. Courses a typical student will take include such classes as:
- Clinical Medicine
- Biology & Microbiology
- Anatomy & Physiology
- Social and Behavior Medicine
- Healthcare Communication
- Health Promotion, Disease Prevention, Nutrition
- Internal Medicine
- Emergency Medicine
- Clinical Integration & Rotations
Schools Other Students Requested Information From:
Employment Opportunities and Licensure
Individuals working as physician assistants will find work primarily in hospitals and clinics, though there are positions available in private practices, military and government facilities, as well as universities and other post-secondary educational institutions. Physician assistants will work a varying schedules, with some individual working over 50 hours a week, and others being on call.
Licensure is required by all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Licensure requires the passing of the Physician National Certifying Examination, offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Continuing education courses are required to maintain the certification, and every 6 years physician assistants must retake the exam.
Working Conditions & Physical Requirements
Physician assistant’s will work as a vital part of a healthcare team either under the direct supervision of an attending physician or as a full-charge care provider at a healthcare center. A physician assistant who is the principle care provider at a medical center or nursing facility will manage the operations and staff for long periods of time or staggered with a physician. For example, a medical clinic may be designed to have a primary care physician on-site two days a week leaving the physician assistant responsible to run the healthcare facility for the other days of the week.
Work hours will vary depending on the healthcare center’s needs and scope of job responsibilities. Some PA’s will work a predictable 8-hour shift over a consistent block of days while others will work on-demand or have a flex schedule working longer, intermittent hours to meet the needs of the healthcare operation and patient demand. Some PA physician assistant will often flex to the needs of the clinic or hospital. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) estimates that approximately 50% of all physician assistant jobs are in a physician’s office, 25% are hospital-based, and the balance are mixed in a variety of health care settings such as specialty care, care facilities, government agencies, and outpatient facilities.
Can a Physician Assistant Specialize?
During your college coursework, you may have the opportunity to take a number of specialized classes that will lead to a concentration in a particular area of study. The exciting news for PA’s is the sheer number of employment opportunities that exist within healthcare and opportunity to upskill and grow your career over time. The seven most popular areas of specialty for a PA include:
- Internal Medicine
- Family Medicine
- General Surgery
- Community Mental Health
- Emergency Medicine
- Women’s Health
Common Job Titles for a Physician Assistant
To best prepare you for the upcoming job market, we have assembled a list of common job titles associated with physician assistants across the country. The most popular job titles for a PA include the following:
- Certified Physician Assistant (PA-C)
- Physician's Assistant (PA)
- General Surgery Physician Assistant
- Midlevel Provider
- Orthopaedic Physician Assistant
- Physician Assistant Certified (PAC)
- Surgical Physician Assistant
- Clinical Physician Assistant
- Family Practice Physician Assistant
- Physician Extender
States with the Highest Employment of Physician Assistants
- New York 12,080
- California 10,090
- Texas 6,650
- Pennsylvania 5,550
- Florida 5,290
Top Paying States for a Physician Assistant
- Nevada $128,370
- Connecticut $116,670
- North Dakota $114,810
- Vermont $114,350
- Washington $113,900
Salary, Job Growth, and Related Fields
Earning potential is well above average as the median income for a physician assistant is $101,480 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics recent report. The growth rate for a physician assistant is 30% through 2024 which is over 4 times the average rate of growth for all vocations in the United States during that same time frame adding some 28,700 jobs during this reporting period. This compounded by a increasing population and an aging population which will create a demand for more healthcare professionals in general. For more information, check out our Roadmap to Becoming a Physician Assistant on our blog here.