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How to: Become a Physician Assistant

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In an increasingly complex health-care environment, physicians often need help to provide quality service. Many hire physician assistants to improve their ability to care for patients. Becoming a physician assistant takes time and dedication.

The Preliminaries

Physician assistant (PA) programs usually prefer their candidates to have health-care experience, according to Brigham Young University-Idaho. Programs set their own experience requirements, which can vary from a recommendation of some experience in the field to a requirement of several thousand hours or even a number of years. The experience must include extensive patient contact, so working as an EMT/paramedic, respiratory therapist, nurse aide or medical assistant would qualify, but working as a secretary in a doctor’s office might not.

Basic Education

Although a bachelor’s degree is not required in all physician assistant programs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that most PAs do have bachelor’s degrees. A program that doesn’t require a degree typically still has prerequisites that total approximately 60 hours of college courses and might require up to four years of preliminary education. Among these requirements are biology, humanities, college math, chemistry and social sciences. Other required courses might include anatomy, physiology, psychology and medical terminology.

Extensive Training Is the Norm

PAs are trained according to the medical model. Their training includes both classroom and laboratory courses. A typical curriculum includes pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, pharmacology, medical diagnosis and medical ethics, according to the BLS. In addition to the didactic courses, the PA student spends hundreds of hours in supervised clinical training, where she learns about family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics and how to deal with emergencies. Clinical training rotations often occur under the supervision of a physician, who sometimes hires the PA once she graduates and becomes licensed.

Graduation and Beyond

A newly-graduated PA must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. A passing score on this exam is the equivalent of obtaining a medical license to practice for a physician. Licensed PAs can use PA-C -- for physician assistant certified -- after their names. To maintain her license, the PA must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years. After 2014, she will be required to retake the certification examination every 10 years. Demand for this profession is expected to grow much faster than average; the BLS projects a 38 percent growth from 2012 to 2022, compared with an expected growth rate of 11 percent for all occupations. As of May 2012, the median annual wage for physician assistants was $90,930, according to the BLS.

2016 Salary Information for Physician Assistants

Physician assistants earned a median annual salary of $101,480 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, physician assistants earned a 25th percentile salary of $86,130, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $121,420, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 106,200 people were employed in the U.S. as physician assistants.

Number of Jobs for Physician Assistants (by year)
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About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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