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Are you considering a career as a physician’s assistant? If you are interested the healthcare field and think you would enjoy examining, diagnosing, and treating patients, this profession may be a good fit for you. Physician assistants, sometimes referred to as PAs, usually work with teams of other medical professionals such as physicians, surgeons, and nurses. They often interact closely with patients, reviewing histories, performing examinations, ordering tests, diagnosing injuries/illnesses, and giving treatment. It’s important to realize, however, that their specific responsibilities will likely vary from state to state. The extent of necessary supervision by physicians and/or surgeons will also differ by location because the laws governing them are not uniform. In some cases, physician assistants serve as primary care providers most of the time, with a physician present only one or two days a week. It’s also not unheard of for these professionals to make house calls and/or schedule visits to nursing homes in order to continue patient treatment.
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What Does a Physician’s Assistant Do?
As mentioned above, the specific medical responsibilities of a physician’s assistant can vary significantly depending on state regulations and a specific facility’s circumstances. However, these professionals typically perform tasks related to examining, diagnosing, and treating patients. From reviewing medical histories and performing routine examinations to setting broken bones and administering immunizations, patient care is their number one priority.
PAs can work in every area of healthcare including primary care, family medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. The services provided will have a significant impact on individual daily routines.
Regardless of the area of medicine practiced most, it’s also not uncommon for physician assistants to educate and counsel patients and their families on various medical issues. They often answer questions and offer guidance to those who need it. This means PAs must remain well informed regarding the latest treatments and medicines available.
Unlike some other medical professionals, physician’s assistants are authorized to prescribe medicines. In fact, these professionals often assess and document patient progress, which can necessitate adjusting prescription types and quantities as the patient’s situation changes.
A physician’s assistant may also be tasked with planning and coordinating outreach programs. In most cases, these events are intended to promote general wellness throughout the community.
Where Might Physician Assistants Work?
Physician assistants can work in most facilities that offer healthcare services to patients. With so many different branches of healthcare, there are numerous state, local, and private companies and organizations looking to hire well-trained professionals in the field.
Some of the employers that are best known for hiring PAs include:
- Offices of Physicians
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
- Specialty Hospitals
- Outpatient Care Centers
- Home Healthcare Services
- Educational Services
- Employment Services
Most physician assistants work in physicians’ offices and maintain full-time schedules, although some do work more than 40 hours a week. For example, it’s not uncommon for PAs to come in on nights, weekends, and/or holidays. Serving on-call rotations may also be necessary.
It is important to realize that the work performed by physician assistants can be physically and emotionally demanding. These professionals spend a significant amount of time on their feet and may need to stand for extended periods of time while assisting with complex surgeries or doing their rounds to check on all their patients.
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Why Become a Physician’s Assistant?
There are a number of great reasons for people to consider becoming physician’s assistants. Obviously, every professional’s motivations are different, but some of the most notable benefits include the following:
- Gaining a Versatile Skill Set
- Helping Others Address Healthcare Needs
- Working in a Growing Field
- Spending Less Time in School
- Earning a Competitive Salary
- Having Flexible Career Options
- Serving On-Call Less
- Maintaining Better Work/Life Balance
- Giving Back to the Community
- Developing Relationships with Patients and Staff
One of the most significant benefits of being a physician’s assistant is that it takes less time to achieve this position than becoming a doctor. While doctors have more independence in the workplace and have earned the right to practice medicine their own way, it takes years for them to achieve this standing. PAs, on the other hand, require less formal education and shorter clinical rotations. While regulations vary by state, this generally means that physician assistants can begin practicing much sooner than physicians can.
They may require less training than doctors, but physician assistants still spend a significant amount of time in school and acquire unique knowledge and skills that are highly coveted within the industry. These professionals rarely have a difficult time finding employment. Many smaller clinics prefer hiring more PAs than physicians because they can save money and still provide excellent patient care. Physicians managing their own practices also tend to employ multiple assistants because they can attend to the majority of noncritical cases.
PA positions are regularly regarded highly within the healthcare industry and this trend is expected to continue for years.
How to Become a Physician’s Assistant
Becoming a physician’s assistant will take time and hard work. To start, you must acquire the necessary education before you can qualify licensure and employment. State regulations vary, but it’s likely that you will need to earn a master’s degree from an accredited physician assistant program after gaining experience in the medical field.
Before you can apply to a graduate school program, you must first earn an undergraduate degree, preferably in science or the medical field. Every application is different, but most require a high school diploma, a minimum GPA of 3.0, and references. These programs usually consist of 120 hours of basic healthcare and liberal arts coursework. Those who are enrolled full-time can generally complete the necessary graduation requirements within four years, but part-time students may need up to eight years to graduate. Depending on the program selected, graduates will be able to find entry-level work within the medical field.
Before applying for any bachelor’s degree, always verify that the college or university is properly accredited. Master-level physician assistant programs and licensing boards will require that your undergraduate degree be provided by regionally or nationally accredited institutions.
It’s good to realize ahead of time that there aren’t many bachelor’s degrees focused specifically on physician assistant studies. Instead, you will need to choose an undergraduate program that provides instruction applicable to a career in healthcare. Fortunately, there are many options available. Colleges and universities may have different program titles, but some of the most common degree types appropriate for prospective physician assistants include:
- Health Sciences
- Human Development
- Public Health
While there may be some content overlap between fields, undergraduate coursework will heavily depend on the type of degree you choose to pursue.
Some common topics for the above-mentioned programs include:
- Cell Structure and Function
- Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Leadership in Nursing Practice
- Information Technology: Applications in Healthcare
- Aging and Health
- Clinical Nutritional Care
- Introduction to Sociology
- Statistical Methods in Sociology
- Medical Anthropology
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All states, as well as the District of Columbia, require physician assistants to be licensed. While state regulations vary, one consistent requirement is the need to complete a master’s level physician assistant program. Institutional applications vary, but most colleges and universities expect candidates to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school, as well as a minimum GPA of 3.0, references, and some experience in healthcare.
These programs usually range between 75 and 120 credit hours of coursework covering a variety of healthcare topics, as well as clinical rotations designed to provide hands-on experience in the field. A practicum or thesis may also be necessary in some programs. In most cases, students work through classroom study during the first half of the program. The second half generally places more focus on rotating through the various areas of medicine such as family medicine, emergency medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, surgery, and geriatrics. Clinical rotations can also lead to employment after graduations.
Those who are enrolled in a master’s degree program full-time can generally complete the necessary graduation requirements within two to three years. Part-time enrollment may slow progression, resulting in an additional year or more of study.
Again, it’s important to consider a college or university’s accreditation when applying for a physician assistant program. If the institution is not properly accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), then you will not be able to apply for licensure.
Not every college or university will have the same program title. While many use the standard title of Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, there are outliers with prestigious degrees definitely worth considering. You may also want to consider enrolling in a program that offers various concentrations within the field. This can be particularly helpful if you want to work in a specific area of medicine after graduation.
Some common concentrations include:
- General Surgery
While there may be some content overlap between various fields, undergraduate coursework will heavily depend on the type of degree you choose to pursue.
Some common topics for the above-mentioned programs include:
- Anatomy and Physiology
- Physical Diagnosis and Patient Evaluation
- Professional Issues for Physician Assistants
- Emergency Medicine and Critical Care
- Aging and Rehabilitation Medicine
- Clinical Neurology
- Diagnostic Methods
- Healthcare Delivery
- Principles of Medicine
- Principles of Psychiatry
- Principles of Pediatrics
- Principles of Obstetrics and Gynecology
- Principles of Orthopedics
- Principles of Surgery
- Aspects of Primary Care
Salary and Job Outlook
According to PayScale, the average annual salary for physician assistants is just over $97,000. This is well above the median annual wage of $37,690 for all occupations, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). There are a number of factors that can impact a physician assistant’s yearly wage including location, experience, level of education, and years in the profession. While most new professionals bring in around $90,000, seasoned PAs who have worked for 20 or more years can make as much as $112,000 annually.
The industry you are employed by also matters. The majority of PAs work in physician’s offices, but this is not the highest paying employer for this position.
The industries that pay physician assistants most (in descending order) include:
- Outpatient Care Centers
- State, Local, and Private Hospitals
- Employment Services
- Offices of Physicians
- State, Local, and Private Educational Services
Overall, the outlook for physician assistants working in the United States is extremely promising. The BLS projects there will be a 31% increase in job availability in this field between 2019 and 2029. This is much faster than the national average for other professions, making it an excellent career choice for individuals interested in healthcare and job security.
There are several key factors impacting this projected growth, chief among them is the ever-growing demand for healthcare services as the nation’s population continues to increase and age. This is largely due to the medical needs of the large baby boomer generation and the prevalence of chronic diseases. Additionally, improving technology is expected to continue adding treatment options, which will drive up use of and access to healthcare services.
Because PAs are capable of providing many of the same services offered by physicians, they will continue to play an important role in the field. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates team-based healthcare to become even more prominent in the future, solidifying the positions prominence.
Physician Assistant Requirements
If you plan to become a physician’s assistant, you will need to carefully consider the education requirements for a physician’s assistant, as well as your state’s licensure regulations. Every state is a little different, but each required PAs to be licensed.
Regarding education, a master’s degree from an accredited program is generally needed. Most aspiring PAs already have a four-year undergraduate degree in a related field and some patient care experience when they begin applying for graduate school as this is necessary to get into the best programs. Applicants for PA programs often consist of registered nurses, EMTs, and paramedics. It generally takes at least two years to complete program requirements, which often include clinical rotations, as well as classroom and laboratory instruction on the following topics:
- Human Anatomy
- Clinical Medicine
- Physical Diagnosis
- Medical Ethics
In order to become licensed, physician assistants must also pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which is offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
PAs are also responsible for completing at least 100 hours of continuing education every two years in order to maintain their certification. Additionally, a recertification exam must be completed every ten years.
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Physician assistants often work closely with patients and other healthcare providers. As a result, they must regularly utilize a wide variety of hard and soft skills in order to complete their daily tasks. The most successful professionals in these positions possess the appropriate medical knowledge as well as interpersonal and communication skills. Other helpful traits include high levels of professionalism, leadership, practice-based learning, and the ability to provide effective patient care.
PAs are constantly in contact with other professionals in the field as well as patients, so it’s not surprising that communication skills are paramount. These professionals often have to explain complex and delicate medical issues in ways that can be easily understood by patients and their families, as well as work closely with doctors and other healthcare providers.
Because the practice of medicine is complex and patients do not always know how to explain their symptoms, physician assistants must also be observant and detail-oriented. Additionally, particularly complicated medical issues require advanced problem-solving skills to ensure that the appropriate treatments are applied.
Finally, these professional also benefit from being compassionate. This trait helps sick and injured patients feel more comfortable, even when they are experiencing pain, anxiety, or distress. It’s also helpful when communicating with a patients’ worried family members and friends. Some situations can be extremely delicate and even tragic, which means personal emotional stability is also a requirement to help you avoid burnout.
Direct Entry, Dual-Degree Physician Assistant Programs
If you know early that you want to be a physician’s assistant, there may be a more direct route available than the usual bachelor’s degree then master’s degree. Exceptional high school students can take advantage of BS/MS physician assistant programs. Applications are due during the senior year of high school and the process is generally highly competitive. Those selected, however usually spend only five years earning both a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences and a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies. Applicants may benefit from some experience in healthcare and are expected to have a firm understanding of what the physician assistant position entails.
Another option is enrolling in an accelerated direct-entry, dual degree program, which allows students to begin more targeted coursework after only three years of undergraduate study. This can decrease the overall time spent in school by at least a year, and helps student avoid the hassle of applying to a new institution between degrees.
It’s important to keep in mind that many of these programs may have higher expectations for applicants. Instead of a 3.0 average GPA, for example, many institutions require a 3.5 minimum GPA to enroll for these degrees.
As with the undergraduate and graduate degrees, it’s essential that you keep the college or university’s accreditation in mind. There are numerous BS/MS and direct-entry programs that are not properly accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Enrolling in one of these could make it difficult or impossible to become licensed as a physician’s assistant after graduation.
Both of these options are designed to help accelerate the academic process. In most cases, the curriculum is specifically designed to focus on integrating basic science, as well as the application of clinical medicine. Every program is different, but you are likely to see many of the same types of classes previously mentioned.
- General Biology
- General Chemistry
- Human Physiology
- Foundations of Biochemistry
- Human Anatomy and Physiology
- Social Sciences
- Cross-Cultural Distribution
- Physical Examination and Diagnostic Modalities
- Health Psychology
- Evidence-Based Medicine
- Preventative Medicine
Experience Need for PA Licensing
As previously mentioned, those intending to enroll in a physician assistant graduate program are likely to need some level of experience providing patient care in order to be seriously considered as a candidate. At the very least, time spent working professionally in the field provides an edge and may help you stand out among others applying for the degree. You may still be able to find a program without patient care experience, but it will be more difficult.
There are many ways to gain this necessary experience. Most aspiring physician assistants begin their careers as EMTs, paramedics, registered nurses, nursing assistants, or other similar healthcare professionals. Time in these jobs is generally considered sufficient for entry to most master’s degree programs.
Alternative ways to gain experience in caring for patients is through volunteering at hospitals or clinics. You may also be able to find and take advantage of opportunities to work with special-needs or at-risk groups through community programs.
To better understand your prospective physician assistant program’s admission requirements, contact the college or university directly. In some cases, the coordinators can provide additional details about the experience needed or recommend ways to achieve it.
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Physician Assistant Certifications
In order to become a physician’s assistant, you must be licensed. While the process and regulations regarding this vary by location, every state and the District of Columbia requires PAs to earn their license. There are no other ways to attain this position.
The top priority for any licensure candidate is to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). The primary requirement for PANCE eligibility is graduation from a physician assistant program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Professionals who pass the PANCE are allowed to use the “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C)” credential.
The material on the exam is generally broken down into two categories:
Organ systems and the diseases, disorders, and medical assessments physician assistants encounter within those systems:
- Cardiovascular System
- Dermatologic System
- Endocrine System
- Eyes, Ears, Nose, and Throat
- Gastrointestinal System/Nutrition
- Hematologic System
- Infectious Diseases
- Musculoskeletal System
- Neurological System
- Psychiatry/Behavioral Science
- Pulmonary System
- Renal System
- Reproductive System (Male and Female)
The knowledge and skills physician assistants should exhibit when confronted with those diseases, disorders, and assessments.
- History taking and Performing Physical Examination
- Using Diagnostic and Laboratory Studies
- Formulating Most Likely Diagnosis
- Managing Patients
- Health Maintenance, Patient Education, and Preventative Measures
- Clinical Intervention
- Pharmaceutical Therapeutics
- Applying Basic Scientific Concepts
- Professional Practice
The PANCE is offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This organization’s primary purpose is to provide certification programs that reflect high standards of clinical knowledge, clinical reasoning, and other medical skills and professional behaviors deemed important to enter the profession and practice as a physician assistant. NCCPA coordinates both the initial certification and recertification exams.
NCCPA does provide sample questions and explanations for answers for those preparing for the examination. There are also 120-question certifying and recertifying practice exams available online to help you direct your study, learn the formatting and timing, and evaluate your potential strengths and weaknesses.
Another licensure law all licensed physician assistants much adhere to is maintaining an agreement with a supervising physician. Supervising physicians do not need to be onsite and observing at all times, but collaboration between the two professionals is required in order to practice legally in every state.
Continuing Education for Physician Assistants
Once you have successfully passed the PANCE and become a licensed physician’s assistant, you will still be responsible for maintaining your certification. PAs are required to complete at least 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) every two years. There are two types of CME: Category 1 and Category 2. Licensed professionals much complete a minimum of 50 credits in Category 1 CME every certification cycle.
Category 1 CME are activities that have been reviewed and approved by one of the following organizations:
- American Academy of PAs
- American Osteopathic Association
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC)
- College of Family Physicians of Canada (CFPC)
- Physician Assistant Certification Council of Canada (PACCC)
- European Union of Medical Specialists/European Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (UEMS/EACCME)
Additionally, continuing education offered by organizations accredited by the Accreditation Council on Continuing Medical Education is acceptable.
Category 2 CME credits are electives related to medicine, patient care, or other related issues.
Some examples include:
- Reading medical journals or texts
- Attending promotional meetings provided by pharmaceutical companies
- Clinical research online
- AAPA HOD
- Precepting (teaching) students
In addition to the continuing education requirements, physician assistants need to take NCCPA’s recertification examination every ten years. While the content is the same, the initial certification exam questions do tend to be more specific.
If you are no longer interested in becoming a physician’s assistant or are still trying to decide which position you are most interested in within the healthcare field, there are many excellent employment opportunities available.
You can choose from a wide variety of similar careers, including:
Pharmacy assistants work in pharmacies and are responsible for answering phones, maintaining patient files, placing supply orders, monitoring inventories, packaging shipments for patients, and coordinating communication between patients and pharmacists.
EMT or Paramedic
EMTs and paramedics are responsible for responding to emergency calls. They regularly perform life-saving medical services and transport patients to medical facilities. If you aren’t yet employed in the healthcare community, this will also give you easier access to a physician assistant program if you decide to go for that later.
Nurse practitioners are responsible for coordinating patient care. They may also provide primary and specialty care, depending on where they work.
Occupational therapists are responsible for treating patients with injuries, illnesses, and disabilities in order to make daily activities more easily accomplished.
Physical therapists are responsible for helping people improve movement and manage pain after an injury or illness.
Physician or Surgeon
Physicians and surgeons are licensed doctors who are responsible for diagnosing and treating injuries and illnesses of all kinds.
Registered nurses are responsible for providing and coordinating patient care, as well as educating patients, their family, and the public about healthcare.