Physician assistants (PAs) provide healthcare to patients under the direction of physicians. They are delegated work by a physician, including diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive healthcare services. They perform a wide range of duties, such as taking medical histories, examining and treating patients, ordering and interpreting laboratory tests and x rays, making diagnoses, and prescribing medications. They keep track of patients' progress and counsel them regarding treatment options. They are allowed to prescribe medications in 47 States and the District of Columbia. Some PAs have duties such as managing other workers or ordering supplies and equipment.
In rural areas or inner city clinics where physicians are not always present, PAs may serve as the principal care providers. In these situations, PAs consult with a supervising physician as well as with other medical professionals. Some PAs make house calls; others travel to hospitals and nursing care facilities to check on patients and report their progress to physicians. Supervising physicians, as well as State law, determine the specific duties of physician assistants. Many PAs work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine. Or they may specialize in general and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics.
Physician assistants need to be natural leaders and have high self-confidence and emotional stability. In order to stay current on advances in medical technology, they must be willing to continue their studies throughout their entire career.
In 2002, physician assistants earned a median annual salary of $64,670. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $35,410, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $90,350.
Training and Education
In all States, PAs must graduate from an accredited, formal education program, of which there are about 133 offering master's and bachelor's degrees. Almost all PAs have at least a bachelor's degree. Admissions requirements for these programs usually include 2 years of college and some work experience in the healthcare field. Most applicants have either a bachelor's or a master's degree. Many have worked as registered nurses. PA programs usually last about 2 years. Programs are full time and are located in schools of allied health, academic health centers, medical schools, or 4-year colleges. A few are found in community colleges, the military, or hospitals.
Physician assistants are required to pass the Physician Assistants National Certifying Examination, which is administered by the Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and only open to graduates of accredited PA education programs. Those who pass the exam are granted the credential "Physician Assistant-Certified." PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years in order to renew their certification. And every 6 years, they are required to pass a recertification exam.
In 2002, physician assistants held about 63,000 jobs. More than 50% worked in offices of physicians or other health practitioners. About 25% worked in hospitals.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of physician assistants is expected to increase faster than the average. This will be due to an expected expansion of the health services industry. Another factor will be a new focus on cost containment within the industry, which will result in physicians and healthcare institutions relying more on physician assistants due to their cost-effective and productive nature. Opportunities will be best for physician assistants in States that allow them a wider range of practice options.
For more information on becoming a physician assistant, please see our directory of schools offering Medical Training.