There are approximately 75,000 physician assistants in the United States. Over 50% are employed by physicians’ offices, while 25% work in public or private hospitals. Job growth projections for the next decade indicate that this profession will explode, growing an astonishing 39%, quadruple that of average growth.
Physician assistants become licensed after finishing an accredited program. They must also pass a national exam.
Physicians and surgeons supervise physician assistants in their medical practices. Physician assistants are not medical assistants whose work is clerical; they are licensed to diagnose and provide therapeutic and preventative healthcare under the supervision of a physician. As a healthcare team member, they record medical histories, examine patients, determine what laboratory tests are required, and diagnose. They are trained in minor surgical activities such as splinting and casting broken bones or suturing a cut. In certain situations, they can also prescribe medication. Some physician assistants take on managerial tasks – for example, tracking and ordering supplies or monitoring medical technicians.
Rural and inner city clinics employ a far higher percentage of physician assistants than other areas, because the physician may only be available at the clinic two days a week. Although the physician assistant is physically present in the clinic when the doctor is not, she is still under supervision and confers with supervisors as is required by law. Some physician assistants travel to hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes to visit patients.
State laws, which can vary widely, determine specific authorizations and limitations to the physician assistant’s practice of medicine. Primary care specialties, including internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine, frequently use physician assistants. They can also be employed in areas of specialization such as surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics. Physician assistants who work in surgery are responsible for pre- and post-operative care. If the supervising surgeon requires it and state law permits it, they can also act as first or second assistant in major surgeries.
Most environments in which physician assistants work are clean, well ventilated, and well-lit. They are often on their feet for most of their shift, particularly those in surgery. For the most part, physician assistants may not have regularly scheduled hours. Weekends, nights, and double shifts are all likely to occur, and at times the physician assistant will be required to remain at work in the event of an emergency.
Physician assistant training programs have a range of admission requirements. Most require applicants have successfully completed a bachelor’s degree and have appropriate work experience.
Physician assistant training programs will take a minimum of two years for students enrolled full time. Programs can be found at academic health centers, schools of medicine, or colleges. In rare cases, community colleges may offer an accredited program. Some members of the military are trained while in service. Approximately 150 programs are accredited or have received provisional accrediting from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Of these, 113 programs offer a master’s degree, 21 a bachelor’s, 3 an associate degree, and 5 offer certification only. Education combines classroom and laboratory coursework in biochemistry, pathology, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, diagnosis, and medical ethics. Most programs also include supervised training.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia require those seeking licensure pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and can only be taken by students who have graduated from an accredited physician assistant education program. Certification remains active only if the physician assistant takes 100 continuing education class hours every two years. In addition, a recertification examination is given in the sixth year. Some states permit an alternative that combines work experience and a take-home examination.
To be a successful physician assistant, a candidate must have the ability to make accurate, quick decisions, generate a sense of calm and professionalism, and maintain continuing interest in learning.
In order to advance in their careers, some physician assistants seek further education by attending postgraduate programs in internal medicine, primary care, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics, neonatology, or occupational medicine. With time and experience, physician assistants will be granted more responsibility and greater pay.
The median annual income for physician assistants is about $82,000. Those in the middle 50% range earn between $69,000 and $97,000. Those in the lowest 10% earn less than $52,000, while those in the top 10% earn more than $110,000.