Physician assistants (PAs), who are also known as a physician associates. are licensed professionals that practice medicine under the supervision of a licensed physician. A PA is formally trained to provide therapeutic, diagnostic and preventive health care services while working with a team of health professionals. Physician assistants work under physicians but in some rural or inner-city clinics, they may be the principle care providers.
Contrary to popular belief, physician assistants are not nurses or doctors in training. They undergo very specific training and education to work as PAs. In the US there are over 140 accredited PA graduate programs available. Programs are geared towards awarding one of three master’s degrees to individuals wanting to become PAs. The three degrees a physician assistant student can receive are in Medical Science (MMSc), Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) or Health Science (MHS). Although some PAs will go on to get doctorate degrees it is not mandatory to work as a PA.
Once a student has received a master’s degree from an accredited PA program they must pass the NCCPA – administered Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam required by all states as well as pass the PA medical board of the state in which they wish to work. Graduate students must also provide proof of at least one hundred continuous medical education (CME) hours and register their certificate with the NCCPA every two years. Physician assistant education is based on the medical model but usually only takes two to three years to complete. The certificate is not good for life like a doctor’s is, and usually requires re-certification every six years by either completing a pathway II exam or the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE).
A PA education will include both clinical practice and classroom education covering subjects like microbiology, surgery, clinical medicine, pathology, hematology and pharmacology; to name a few. Physicians’ assistants will spend the first year studying along with medical students and then the classes will differentiate. There is no residency program associated with becoming a PA.
The American Academy of Physician Assistants, has reported that the average annual salary for a first year practicing PA is approximately $65,000, while the average salary for a PA with experience being about $74,000 a year. Salaries vary based on specialty training, years of experience and the state you are employed in.
A PA can work anywhere you can imagine a doctor working. Currently more than 65% of physician assistants work in physicians’ offices and hospitals, but they can also work in nursing homes, health clinics, schools, prisons and home health care facilities. A PAs work schedule and hours will usually be based on the supervising physician. Often the workweek of a PA in a hospital will include nights and weekends or even being on call while PAs working out of the hospital setting will usually work a more typical 40-hour workweek.
There is no shortage of duties that a PA might perform in a day’s work. Physician Assistants commonly perform physical examinations, review medical histories, order and interpret lab tests and results, and diagnose and treat illnesses. They also may treat minor injuries including casting and splinting, and even assist in surgeries and giving patient instructions. Depending on the physician the PA works under and in what practice setting, a PA could perform certain managerial duties, such as ordering supplies or equipment and supervising medical assistants and technicians.
Being a PA can be a highly rewarding job for many individuals who want to work in the health care industry, but don’t want to be nurses and doctors. There is also a huge need for PAs as The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that they expect the PA employment needs to grow almost 30% between now and 2016. The main reason for this is the high amount of aging baby boomers. It’s quite simply a great time to enter the PA profession.