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How to Become a Physician Assistant

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Medical Career Pathways: Physician Assistant

If you are interested in a health care career but don't want to spend six years in medical school, becoming a physician assistant may be a good option. Also known as PAs, physician assistants are licensed to provide many of the same types of care that a medical doctor can, including examinations, diagnoses and treatments. PAs work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, doctors offices, institutions and standalone clinics.

Job Description

A physician assistant provides hands-on medical care as part of a team of healthcare providers. Each state has its own laws that define a physician assistant's scope of practice, but many PAs perform the following tasks and procedures:

  • Examining patients
  • Ordering diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing health conditions
  • Treating injuries and illnesses
  • Assisting with surgeries
  • Prescribing medication

In many health care settings, a physician assistant provides primary care and performs routine procedures so that physicians can provide more in-depth treatment to patients. In areas where there are few, if any, doctors available, a physician assistant may be the primary medical professional at a local clinic. In such cases, however, the PA will be in close communication with a supervising doctor.

Education Requirements

Educational requirements vary by state, but most require a Masters degree for licensure. Admission to physician assistant programs can be competitive, and may require a strong undergraduate science background. In addition, schools may require or favor applicants who already have experience in providing health care to patients as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), paramedics or registered nurses.

After completing their education, physician assistants must then pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) which is issued by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) before obtaining state licensure. Completion of approved continuing education hours is required for license and certification renewal.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2016, the median annual wage for physician assistants was $101,480. The lowest 10 percent of earners made less than $65,620 annually, with the top 10 percent earning more than $142,210.

About the Industry

The majority, or 56 percent, of currently practicing physician assistants work in doctor's offices. Twenty-three percent work in hospitals, eight percent in outpatient care centers, three percent work in educational institutions and another three percent work for employment services.

Most physician assistants work full-time and may have to be on-call for some rotations. If you have small children, this may be a consideration if you don't have someone else at home who can take care of the kids when you get called into work.

Years of Experience

A physician assistant who works continuously in her field can expect to increase her earnings over time. According to Payscale.com, here are how salaries can correspond to work experience:

  • Entry level (0-5 years): $89,000
  • Mid-career (5-10 years): $100,000
  • Experienced (10-20 years): $105,000
  • Over 20 years experience: $106,000

Job Growth Trend

The BLS estimates that the demand for physician assistants will grow significantly between 2016 and 2026. Its projections show a job growth rate of 37 percent, which the BLS notes is stronger than average. Physician assistants are in demand for several reasons, including an aging population in need of care, as well as efforts to control health care costs.