Physician Assistants

Summary

physician assistants image
Physician assistants practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons.
Quick Facts: Physician Assistants
2012 Median Pay $90,930 per year
$43.72 per hour
Entry-Level Education Master’s degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training None
Number of Jobs, 2012 86,700
Job Outlook, 2012-22 38% (Much faster than average)
Employment Change, 2012-22 33,300

What Physician Assistants Do

Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on a team under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are formally educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment.

Work Environment

Physician assistants work in physicians’ offices, hospitals, and other healthcare settings. Most work full time.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants must complete an accredited educational program. These programs usually lead to a master’s degree. All states require physician assistants to be licensed.

Pay

The median annual wage for physician assistants was $90,930 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Increased demand for healthcare services from the growing and aging population and widespread chronic disease, combined with a shortage of physicians, will result in increased demand for healthcare providers, such as physician assistants.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of physician assistants with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about physician assistants by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Physician Assistants Do

Physician assistants
Physician assistants provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive healthcare services, as delegated by a physician.

Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on a team under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are formally educated to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment.

Duties

Physician assistants typically do the following:

  • Review patients’ medical histories
  • Conduct physical exams to check patients’ health
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests, such as x rays or blood tests
  • Make diagnoses concerning a patient’s injury or illness
  • Give treatment, such as setting broken bones and immunizing patients
  • Educate and counsel patients and their families—for example, answering questions about how to care for a child with asthma
  • Prescribe medicine when needed
  • Record a patient’s progress
  • Research the latest treatments to ensure the quality of patient care
  • Conduct or participate in outreach programs; talking to groups about managing diseases and promoting wellness

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician or surgeon; however, their specific duties and the extent to which they must be supervised differ from state to state.

Physician assistants work in all areas of medicine, including primary care and family medicine, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. The work of physician assistants depends in large part on their specialty and what their supervising physician needs them to do. For example, a physician assistant working in surgery may close incisions and provide care before and after the operation. A physician assistant working in pediatrics may examine a child and give routine vaccinations.

In rural and medically underserved areas, physician assistants may be the primary care providers at clinics where a physician is present only 1 or 2 days per week. In these locations, physician assistants confer with the physician and other healthcare workers as needed and as required by law.

Some physician assistants make house calls or visit nursing homes to treat patients, reporting back to the physician afterward.

Physician assistants are different from medical assistants. Medical assistants do routine clinical and clerical tasks and they do not practice medicine.

Work Environment

Physician assistants
Many physician assistants work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine.

Physician assistants held about 86,700 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most physician assistants in 2012 were as follows:

Offices of health practitioners58%
Hospitals; state, local, and private23
Outpatient care centers7
Government4
Educational services; state, local, and private3

Physician assistant work can be both physically and emotionally demanding. Physician assistants spend much of their time on their feet, making rounds and evaluating patients. Physician assistants who work in operating rooms often stand for extended periods. Although the work can be stressful, helping patients can be rewarding.

Work Schedules

Most physician assistants work full time. In hospitals, physician assistants may work nights, weekends, or holidays. They may also be on call, meaning that they must be ready to respond to a work request with little notice.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

Physician assistants
Physician assistants often treat minor injuries, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy.

Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Earning that degree usually takes at least 2 years of full-time postgraduate study. Most applicants to physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience. All states require physician assistants to be licensed.

Education

Most applicants to physician assistant education programs already have a bachelor’s degree and some healthcare-related work experience. While admissions requirements vary from program to program, most programs require two to four years of undergraduate coursework with a focus in science.

Many applicants already have experience as registered nurses or as EMTs and paramedics before they apply to a physician assistant program.

Physician assistant education programs usually take at least 2 years of full-time study. In 2012, the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA) accredited 170 education programs. Most of these accredited programs offer a master’s degree.

Physician assistant education includes classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects such as pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. The programs also include hundreds of hours of supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, and pediatrics.

Sometimes students serve in one or more of these areas under the supervision of a physician who is looking to hire a physician assistant. In this way, the rotation may lead to permanent employment.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, they must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A physician assistant who passes the exam may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”

To keep their certification, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every 2 years. Beginning in 2014, the recertification exam will be required every 10 years.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Physician assistants must explain complex medical issues in a way that patients can understand. They must also communicate with doctors and other healthcare workers to ensure that they provide the best possible patient care.

Compassion. Many physician assistants are drawn to the profession by a desire to help people. They should enjoy helping others.

Detail oriented. Physician assistants should be focused and observant to evaluate and treat patients properly.

Emotional stability. Physician assistants, particularly those working in surgery or emergency medicine, should be able to work well under pressure. They must remain calm in stressful situations in order to provide quality care.

Problem-solving skills. Physician assistants need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They must be diligent when investigating complicated medical issues so that they can determine the best course of treatment for each patient.

Advancement

Some physician assistants pursue additional education in a specialty. Postgraduate educational programs are available in areas such as surgery, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. To enter one of these programs, a physician assistant must be a graduate of an accredited program and be certified by the NCCPA.

As they gain greater clinical knowledge and experience, physician assistants can earn new responsibilities and higher wages. For example, experienced physician assistants may supervise other staff and physician assistant students.

Pay

Physician Assistants

Median annual wages, May 2012

Physician assistants

$90,930

Health diagnosing and treating practitioners

$73,410

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

The median annual wage for physician assistants was $90,930 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $62,430, and the top 10 percent earned more than $124,770.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for physician assistants in the top five industries in which these assistants worked were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private$93,660
Outpatient care centers93,520
Offices of health practitioners90,150
Educational services; state, local, and private88,890
Government86,870

Most physician assistants work full time. In hospitals, physician assistants may work nights, weekends, or holidays. They may also be on call, meaning that they must be ready to respond to a work request with little notice.

Job Outlook

Physician Assistants

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Physician assistants

38%

Health diagnosing and treating practitioners

20%

Total, all occupations

11%

 

Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for healthcare services will increase because of the growing and aging population. More people means more need for healthcare specialists, and as the large baby-boom generation ages, it will require more healthcare. This, coupled with an increase in several chronic diseases such as diabetes, will drive the need for physician assistants to provide preventive care and treat those who are sick.

Physician assistants, who can perform many of the same services as doctors, are expected to have a larger role in giving routine care because they are more cost effective than physicians. As more physicians retire or enter specialty areas of medicine, more physician assistants are expected to take on the role of primary care provider. Furthermore, the number of individuals who have access to primary care services will increase as a result of federal health insurance reform.

The role of physician assistants is expected to expand as states continue to allow assistants to do more procedures and as insurance companies expand their coverage of physician assistant services.

Job Prospects

Good job prospects are expected, particularly for physician assistants working in rural and medically underserved areas, as well as physician assistants working in primary care.

Employment projections data for Physician Assistants, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Physician assistants

29-1071 86,700 120,000 38 33,300 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of physician assistants.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2012 MEDIAN PAY
Audiologists

Audiologists

Audiologists diagnose and treat a patient’s hearing and balance problems using advanced technology and procedures.

Doctoral or professional degree $69,720
EMTs and paramedics

EMTs and Paramedics

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics care for the sick or injured in emergency medical settings. People’s lives often depend on their quick reaction and competent care. EMTs and paramedics respond to emergency calls, performing medical services and transporting patients to medical facilities.

Postsecondary non-degree award $31,020
nurse anesthetists nurse midwives and nurse practitioners image

Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners, also referred to as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), provide and coordinate patient care and they may provide primary and specialty health care. The scope of practice varies from state to state.

Master’s degree $96,460
Occupational therapists

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists treat injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

Master’s degree $75,400
Physical therapists

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain. These therapists are often an important part of rehabilitation and treatment of patients with chronic conditions or injuries.

Doctoral or professional degree $79,860
Physicians and surgeons

Physicians and Surgeons

Physicians and surgeons diagnose and treat injuries or illnesses. Physicians examine patients; take medical histories; prescribe medications; and order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests. They counsel patients on diet, hygiene, and preventive healthcare. Surgeons operate on patients to treat injuries, such as broken bones; diseases, such as cancerous tumors; and deformities, such as cleft palates.

Doctoral or professional degree This wage is equal to or greater than $187,200 per year.
Registered nurses

Registered Nurses

Registered nurses (RNs) provide and coordinate patient care, educate patients and the public about various health conditions, and provide advice and emotional support to patients and their family members.

Associate’s degree $65,470
Speech-language pathologists

Speech-Language Pathologists

Speech-language pathologists (sometimes called speech therapists) assess, diagnose, treat, and help to prevent communication and swallowing disorders in patients. Speech, language, and swallowing disorders result from a variety of causes, such as a stroke, brain injury, hearing loss, developmental delay, a cleft palate, cerebral palsy, or emotional problems.

Master’s degree $69,870
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Physician Assistants,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm (visited October 25, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014