Physician assistants are licensed to practice medicine, but only under supervision from physicians. Their duties include examining patients, ordering diagnostic procedures, diagnosing patients, prescribing drugs and giving treatments. You can qualify for the job by completing an accredited training program -- most often a master's degree -- and passing national exams for a state license. Once qualified, physician assistants can anticipate high earnings on average, but their salaries fluctuate widely.
The average wage for the 83,640 physician assistants nationwide was $44.45 per hour, or $92,460 per full-time year, in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their median income came to $43.72 per hour, or $90,930 annually. The majority of physician assistants have full-time jobs, and approximately 13 percent worked 50 hours or more per week as of 2010, according to the BLS.
The top-earning physician assistants earn approximately twice as much as the lowest earners. As of 2012, the lowest-earning 10 percent received $62,430 per year or less, while the highest-earning 10 percent received at least $124,770 annually, reports the BLS. Physician assistants typically qualify for higher income as they gain experience and can also increase their pay by completing postgraduate education in a specialty, such as occupational medicine.
The projected salary for a physician assistant depends in part on the industry of employment, but pay is similar in three of the top four industries. As of 2012, more than half of physician assistants worked for doctors' offices, where they received average annual salaries of $93,040, according to the BLS. The second-largest employer was general hospitals, paying an average of $93,630 per year, and outpatient centers were in third place, with annual pay averaging $94,330. However, physician assistants working for the federal executive branch, the fourth-largest employer, averaged $83,770 per year -- a significant drop from the leading three industries.
Among employers with more than 1,500 jobs for physician assistants, employment services had the highest average salary of $97,720 per year in 2012, reports the BLS. The highest-paying industry of all was specialty hospitals, which paid 710 physician assistants an average of $100,060 per year. Home health services and office administrative services had fewer than 150 jobs each, but they paid the second- and third-highest wages of $98,230 and $98,000 per year, respectively.
States with High Pay
Location is another factor in the average salary projected for a physician assistant. As of 2012, five states had average pay exceeding $102,000 annually, led by Rhode Island with $112,350 per year, according to the BLS. In second place, wages in Connecticut averaged $104,540 annually. In Washington state and Oregon, physician assistants received an average of $103,890 and $103,400 per year, respectively, while wages averaged $102,670 per year in Nevada.
The aging of the U.S. population and the increased use of physician assistants as a cost-cutting measure will contribute to a growth in jobs. The BLS estimates that positions for physician assistants will increase 30 percent between 2010 and 2020 -- higher than the 14 percent average for all other occupations. Overall, prospects for physician assistants will be good, especially in the field of primary care and in rural locations. In fact, Becker's Hospital Review predicts that physician assistants will begin to receive productivity-based incentive pay in the future.