How to Become a Physician Assistant

Doctor And Nurse Talking To Young Girl

Physician assistants (PAs) examine, diagnose, and treat patients under the supervision of a doctor. PAs may write prescriptions, order diagnostic tests, assist in surgeries, work with research data, and deliver health education. In the past, states specifically defined what aspects of care PAs were allowed to deliver, but the accepted practice now is that PAs may take on whatever duties a physician delegates to them. The supervising physician is ultimately responsible for patient care and must regularly consult with their PA, but PAs have autonomy in making medical decisions.

PAs are being used increasingly to provide routine and primary care. Health care facilities may hire physician assistants to cut costs and provide care in remote and underserved areas.

What kind of training is required to become a physician assistant?

Physician assistant training typically occurs through a master’s degree program. Applicants to physician assistant programs should have a bachelor’s degree and high grades in prerequisite courses like human anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry, and mathematics. Many schools require applicants to have several hundred hours of experience working or volunteering in health care.

The structure of a physician assistant program is similar to the structure of medical school. Students spend the first half of their program taking courses and the second half completing a number of rotations in clinical settings. PA students learn about the scientific foundations of medicine, human anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, and behavioral health. They also learn clinical skills such as examining, assessing, counseling, and diagnosing patients.

After they finish their preclinical studies, students complete rotations in hospitals and other health care facilities. Required rotations may include pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family practice, general surgery, and emergency medicine. Students may also choose elective rotations like ophthalmology, psychiatry, infectious diseases, or radiology.

Are there any certification or licensure requirements?

Physician assistants must be licensed by their state to practice. To qualify for a license, prospective PAs must complete a state-approved physician assistant training program and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Many states also require license applicants to submit fingerprints for a criminal history background check.

How long does it take to become a physician assistant?

To become a physician assistant, one must earn a bachelor’s degree, which takes roughly four years, and complete a physician assistant training program, which takes two years. Many physician assistants enter their training programs with experience working in health care (as a nurse or paramedic, for example), and that can add years to the timeline as well.

What does a physician assistant earn?

The median yearly pay for physician assistants in the United States was $90,930 in 2012. The top ten percent of earners in this field made more than $124,770 and the lowest ten percent earned less than $62,430 that year.

What are the job prospects?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that employment of PAs in the United States will grow by 38 percent between 2012 and 2020. This growth is much faster than the average for all other occupations. The BLS attributes this exceptional growth to several factors, including the need to care for an aging population and increased access to health insurance and health care. Many health care facilities are turning to physician assistants to provide primary care at lower costs, especially in urban and rural areas.

What are the long term career prospects for physician assistants?

The physician assistant role was first introduced in the 1970s, so it is a relatively new addition to the health care field. Over the past several decades, the defined role of the PA has evolved and will continue to evolve in the future as more qualified practitioners are needed to provide care.

Much like physicians, physician assistants can gain additional training in a specialty through postgraduate programs like residencies and fellowships. PAs with experience and specialized training may earn higher salaries and gain supervisory responsibilities. PAs may also pursue doctoral degrees and go into higher education or research.

How can I find a job as a physician assistant?

Most physician assistants work in hospitals and physicians’ offices, but consider looking for jobs in other types of clinical settings as well. PAs are especially needed in underserved urban and rural areas, so you may have a higher chance of success in securing one of these jobs. Many employers use recruiting agencies to find PAs to fill openings, and some PAs receive offers of employment with the physicians and facilities they work with during their clinical rotations. Even if you do not find a job through your clinical experiences, you should make many professional contacts that you can consult for advice and leads in your job search.

How can I learn more about becoming a physician assistant?

You can learn more about becoming a PA and about the history of the profession through organizations like the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the Physician Assistant History Society, and the National Commission on the Certification of Physician Assistants.

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