Physicians Assistant: Career Outlook, Education, and Training

Physician's assistant career outlook

Are you looking for a stable career with continual innovation and variety? Do you enjoy working with people and have a knack for science and medicine? If so, you may want to consider a Physicians Assistant career. Every day, thousands of people have access to quality health care because there are Physicians Assistants (PAs) in their communities. Many physician assistants take jobs in rural communities that would otherwise be without a health care provider. As patient advocates and educators, PAs help people use the health care system more efficiently and effectively.

If you want to make a difference—and have a positive influence on health care in this country—the Physician Assistant profession is waiting for you.

What Does A Physicians Assistant Do?

Don’t confuse physician assistants with medical assistants, who aren’t qualified to do much more than take your blood pressure. A Physicians Assistants responsibilities are far greater than a medical assistant. Physician assistants do 80% of what doctors do—conduct exams, diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, even assist in surgery. While PAs in the health care field are supervised by physicians, they have considerable independence. And while pay isn’t quite as much as that of a doctor, it’s far from sickly. Also, training is much shorter than it is for doctors—typically consisting of three years, post-bachelor’s.

No surprise this is one of America’s fastest-growing professions.

Physician assistants have an excellent career outlook. They work wherever physicians or health care organizations employ them. They can be found in virtually all health care settings. Physicians Assistants work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, HMOs, correctional institutions, military installations, VA medical centers, nursing homes, public health agencies, community clinics, research centers, urban/rural health clinics, health care education and administration offices, industrial medicine clinics, and even the White House.

Physician assistants can take medical histories, perform physical exams, order and interpret laboratory tests, diagnose and treat illnesses, counsel patients, assist in surgery, and set fractures.

Physician assistants are educated as generalists in medicine; all programs emphasize primary care and cover the extent of a physicians assistants responsibilities. Although their education and credentialing are based on a primary care foundation, PAs can work in specialty fields, such as cardiovascular surgery, orthopedics, and emergency medicine. Most choose the primary care specialty areas of family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology.

Education & Training

Requirements have been ratcheted up. Today, the typical student admitted to the three-year training program has a pre-med bachelor’s degree, plus a few years of experience as a nurse, paramedic, or emergency medical technician.

All states require that Physicians Assistants complete an accredited, formal education program and pass a National exam to obtain a license. PA in health care programs usually last at least two or three years and are full time. Most programs are in schools of allied health, academic health centers, medical schools, or 4-year colleges; a few are in community colleges, the military, or hospitals. Many accredited PA programs have clinical teaching affiliations with medical schools. Most applicants to PA educational programs already have a bachelor’s degree.

Some Physicians Assistants pursue additional education in a specialty such as surgery, neonatology, or emergency medicine. PA postgraduate educational programs are available in areas such as internal medicine, rural primary care, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, neonatology, and occupational medicine. Candidates must be graduates of an accredited program and be certified.

As they attain greater clinical knowledge and experience, PAs can advance to added responsibilities and higher earnings. However, by the very nature of the profession, clinically practicing PAs always are supervised by physicians.

Physicians Assistant Career Outlook

Physicians and institutions are expected to employ more Physicians Assistants to provide primary care and to assist with medical and surgical procedures because PAs are cost-effective and productive members of the health care team. Physician assistants can relieve physicians of routine duties and procedures. Telemedicine—using technology to facilitate interactive consultations between physicians and physician assistants—also will expand the use of physician assistants. Job opportunities for PAs should be good, particularly in rural and inner city clinics, because those settings have difficulty attracting physicians.

Besides the traditional office-based setting, PAs should find a growing number of jobs in institutional settings such as hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics, and prisons. Additional PAs may be needed to augment medical staffing in inpatient teaching hospital settings as the number of hours physician residents are permitted to work is reduced, encouraging hospitals to use PAs to supply some physician resident services. Opportunities will be best in States that allow PAs a wider scope of practice.

According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004 the median salary for Physicians Assistants was $77,863.

A commitment to caring is the foundation of the physician assistant career – and has been since the profession began. Whether it is running a rural health clinic in South Dakota or a community health center in Florida, caring for pediatric patients in New York or geriatric patients in Arizona, Physicians Assistants are making a difference.