In its 2020 ranking of best health care jobs, U.S. News & World Report ranked physician assistant (PA) second, and third in best jobs overall. Sometimes referred to mistakenly as physician’s assistants, 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
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 2019, PAs held over 104,000 jobs, with hospitals employing 41.1% of PAs and office-based private practices employing 38.6%. 5.2% were employed in federal government facilities, 4.8% in community health centers or rural health clinics, and 4.6% in urgent cares.
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.
Salary Range and Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 31% job growth rate for the profession through 2029. 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 $112,260, according to the BLS.
- It offers the flexibility to move into different areas of medicine without additional education and training.
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:
- Microbiology or bacteriology
- Organic chemistry
Non-science courses may include but are not limited to:
- College-level algebra
- English composition
- Medical terminology
- Technical writing
The number of accredited PA programs has increased from 210 in 2016 to 260 in 2020 and all programs offer a master’s degree.
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.
Learn More About a Career as a Physician Assistant
- Watch a video about physician assistants.
- Read more about what physician assistants do and listen to the reasons they love their job.
- Visit this PAEA microsite and customize your learning experience about becoming a Physician Assistant.
- Follow the PA Focus blog and Facebook page to learn more about PA careers and applying to PA programs.
- Accreditation Review Commission on Education for Physician Assistants
- American Academy of Physician Assistants
- Central Application Service for Physician Assistants
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants
- Physician Assistant Education Association