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Physician Assistant

Overview

In its 2016 ranking of best health care jobs, U.S. News and World Report ranked physician assistant (PA) fourth in best health care jobs. Physician assistants are medical providers who are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease and to prescribe medication for patients. They work in physician offices, hospitals and clinics in collaboration with a licensed physician.

The physician-PA relationship is fundamental to the profession and enhances the delivery of high-quality health care. Because of their advanced education in general medicine, modeled after physician education, physician assistants can treat patients with significant autonomy.

In a primary care setting, physician assistants can provide nearly all of the clinical services a physician does, including:

  • Take medical histories
  • Perform physical exams
  • Order and interpret laboratory tests
  • Diagnose and treat illnesses
  • Counsel patients
  • Assist in surgery
  • Set fractures

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 30% job growth rate for the profession through 2024. In addition to demand, the job is attractive because:

  • The average length of a physician assistant graduate program is only 27 months.
  • The median salary is $98,180, according to the BLS.
  • It offers the flexibility to move into different areas of medicine without additional education and training.

Every day, thousands of people have access to quality health care because there are physician assistants in their communities. Physician assistants are critical to increasing access to care for rural and other underserved patients as they are often the only health providers in these areas. Nearly 300 million patient visits were made to physician assistants, and approximately 332 million medications were prescribed or recommended by physician assistants in 2008.

Physician assistants also work in specialties outside of primary care, including medical and surgical specialties and sub-specialties.

In 2014, physician assistants held 94,400 jobs, with physician’s offices employing 57% of physician assistants and hospitals employing 22%. Seven percent were employed in outpatient care centers, 3% by government entities and 3% in educational services (state, local and private).

Working Conditions

Physician assistants usually work in a comfortable, well-lighted environment. Those in surgery often stand for long periods, and others may do considerable walking.

Schedules will vary according to practice setting or may depend on the hours of the collaborating physician. The workweek of physician assistants may include weekends, nights and early morning hospital rounds to visit patients. They may also be on call at certain times, including nights and weekends.

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About a Career as a Physician Assistant

About Health Care Careers

Note:  The Physician Assistant Education Association reviewed this career profile.

Academic Requirements

To practice as a physician assistant, you must graduate from an accredited PA program, pass the national certification exam and obtain a license in the state in which you wish to practice. You cannot bypass any of those steps and must complete them in order.

It is important to carefully review the prerequisite course requirements of all programs because they may vary, in some cases greatly. In general, requirements may include a completed bachelor’s degree, science and non-science prerequisites courses, minimum GPAs, health care experience and standardized exams.

Science courses may include but are not limited to:

  • Anatomy
  • Biochemistry 
  • Biology 
  • Chemistry 
  • Genetics  
  • Microbiology or bacteriology  
  • Organic chemistry  
  • Physics 
  • Physiology

Non-science courses may include but are not limited to:

  • Calculus 
  • College-level algebra
  • English composition 
  • Humanities 
  • Literature 
  • Medical terminology
  • Psychology 
  • Sociology 
  • Speech
  • Statistics 
  • Technical writing

The number of accredited PA programs has increased from 196 in 2015 to 210 in 2016 and over 90% of programs offer a master's degree. The remainder of PA programs offer either a bachelor's degree, associate’s degree or certificate of completion, all of which are acceptable to qualify for the certification exam, licensing and eventual practice. Starting in 2020, all PA programs will be required to offer a master’s degree upon completion of and graduation from a PA program.

The Physician Assistant Education Association provides a list of PA programs. The list is updated in May each year and can be used to search for programs and to compare admissions criteria.

The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) makes it easy to apply to multiple PA programs using a single application, one set of transcripts, one set of letters of recommendation and one personal statement. The CASPA Facebook page provides additional information about the application cycle and the process of applying.