Talk about a misleading title! Far from being medical assistants, physician assistants (PAs) are master's degree-level health care professionals licensed to see and treat patients, and even prescribing medicine in most states. They're called assistants because they're technically under the supervision of physicians and because they assist physicians by freeing them from the more routine diagnoses and treatments. The degree of supervision required varies between states, and in some parts of the country, physician assistants practice primarily on their own. Although PAs are paid less than physicians, even the starting physician assistant salary is more than twice the average U.S. worker's salary.
The average salary for entry-level physician assistants in the U.S. is $88,227 as of October 2018.
A day on the job as a physician assistant might find you diagnosing an array of coughing and sneezing patients with colds and flu; performing a patient’s annual physical; stitching a gash on a teen athlete’s knee and referring a middle-aged man for a cardiac stress test. You could do all of these tasks without specific approval from the physicians on staff. But when an elderly patient presents with confusing symptoms, you ask one of the physicians on staff to consult with you on the diagnosis.
As a physician assistant, you’ll be able to do most of the tasks of a physician, including taking patients’ histories, ordering and interpreting medical tests, making diagnoses and prescribing medication. You’ll even set basic fractures and stitch wounds that don’t require the expertise of a plastic surgeon.
When you’re unsure of the meaning of the symptoms you’re seeing, however, you’ll call on the physician who is your supervisor. This is more than a professional courtesy; it’s the law in most states.
Since you won’t have a medical degree as a PA, you’re required to be supervised by a licensed physician. This doesn’t mean seeing patients together, however, unless there’s a specific reason the physician is needed. It means having a physician you can call on when you need help. The physician could be on staff and available daily, or maybe she stops in once or twice a week. But, she’s always available by phone should you need her advice.
This is especially true in rural areas, where physicians are scarce. PAs may serve as the primary medical care giver in the area, supervised by weekly visits by a licensed physician. The physician is, of course, on call, if needed.
Education and Licensing Requirements
To become a PA, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and experience in some aspect of patient care. Many practicing nurses go on to become PAs, but you could gain health care experience as a volunteer, too. Most PA programs take two years of full-time study to complete and award a master’s degree upon finishing.
In those two years, you’ll study anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, medical ethics and much more. You’ll also have hands-on practice with patient care in a hospital or clinic, and you'll rotate through some specialties such as family practice, pediatrics and emergency care.
Every state and the District of Columbia requires PAs to be licensed. While licensing requirements can vary between states, all require potential PAs to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). When you pass the test, the designation following your name will be PA-C.
Although they're paid less than physicians, even the first year PA salary is significant. The entry-level physician assistant salary was $88,227 as of October 2018. The median annual salary for all PAs was $104,860 as of May 2017, with a range of less than $66,590, to more than $146,260. A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries for one occupation, where half earned more and half earned less.
About the Industry
Physician assistants are employed throughout the health care industry, in clinics, hospitals, outpatient care services, private practices and as health educators. Most work a full-time, 40-hour week, which can include nights and weekends depending on where you work. You may also be on call for nights and weekends and work longer days during flu season or in times of epidemic outbreaks. Even at 40 hours a week, the job can be physically and emotionally draining. You’ll be on your feet most of the day, moving from room to room and carrying a laptop with you to record your patient notes.
Most PAs report high satisfaction with their jobs. Like other health care professionals, though, they are surprised by the amount of work required beyond treating patients, including administrative tasks and posting detailed notes on computerized patient charts.
Years of Experience
With several years of experience, you’ll find that your earnings will be increasing significantly beyond the first year PA salary. While the median PA salary as of May 2017 was $104,860, PAs with experience earned $146,260 or more.
Job Growth Trend
The demand for physician assistants is expected to grow 37 percent between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than job growth in general. As baby boomers age, they will need more medical services. As states increase the tasks that PAs are permitted to do and as insurance companies agree to pay for a greater number of PA services, the cost-effectiveness of giving these jobs to PAs will create more job openings for them.