Physician assistants (PAs) are right-hand men and women for physicians and surgeons, working in private practices, clinics, hospitals and other health care institutions. PAs are a valuable part of the medical team.
What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
Responsibilities for physician assistants can vary depending upon training, experience, the clinical setting and laws of their particular state. In general, PAs perform diagnostic, therapeutic and preventative health care under the supervision of surgeons and physicians. As part of a dedicated health care team, they are also responsible for recording medical histories, treating minor injuries, applying casts, splinting sprains and broken bones, as well as interpreting laboratory tests and x-rays. They may even assist in surgery. In some practices, they may have managerial responsibilities, such as ordering medical equipment and supplies, and supervising medical technicians.
In a clinical setting where the supervising physician is only present for one or two days each week, the physician assistant may be the principal care provider during the physician's absence. Physician assistants may also be required to make house calls, visit nursing care facilities or hospitals, and then report back to the supervising physician.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2009, the mean annual salary for physician assistants was $84,830. In the overall pay range, earners in the middle comprised the largest group. Their employers included:
- Medical and surgical hospitals
- Outpatient care centers
- Physicians' offices
- Federal Executive branch
- Universities, colleges and professional schools
Income, however, can vary per specialty, geographical location, practice type and experience. Physician assistants' work schedules also may vary depending on the practice setting. For example, PAs who work in a hospital may work weekends, nights or early morning shifts. They also may be on call. PAs who work in clinics usually work 40-hour weeks.
What Are the Steps to Becoming a Physician Assistant?
You can start preparing to become a physician assistant in high school by taking courses in biology, math, chemistry, computing and office skills. These are an excellent foundation for your future career as a physician assistant. Consider volunteering at a local health care facility to gain medical insight and experience.
The next step is to fulfill the admission requirements for an accredited physician assistant training program. Programs offering associate's degrees require a high school diploma, or equivalent, and may want applicants to have some prior health care experience. Programs offering bachelor's degrees require a minimum of two years of college credits and nearly all mandate previous health care experience. Programs offering master's degrees require appropriate undergraduate credits with a minimum GPA as well as past health care experience.
Apply to your programs of choice. Once admitted, complete the program and obtain the related degree. The average PA program takes 26.5 months to complete. The training involves course lectures, laboratory sessions and at least one year of clinical rotation. Students typically study a broad range of related subjects, including:
- Internal Medicine
- Emergency Medicine
Upon graduation, take the national certifying examination administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Those who pass this test are certified and can use the title and designation, Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).
Every state throughout the U.S. and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to complete an accredited training program and pass the national exam for certification.
To remain certified, physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education credits every two years and pass a recertification exam every six years.
How to Stand Out as a Physician Assistant
Great physician assistants show dedication, self-motivation and a strong desire to help patients. A good bedside manner is essential, as are emotional stability and the ability to stay calm under pressure. They maintain an enthusiasm for learning to stay apace with the education that's required for continued licensure.
Here are two more ways to be a superb physician assistant:
Specialize: Consider pursuing additional education in a specialized field. Physician assistant postgraduate programs are available in areas such as emergency medicine, neonatology and pediatrics. Although you will still be supervised by a physician, advanced qualifications and greater clinical experience can earn you new and interesting responsibilities as well as a higher salary.
Join a professional organization: The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is the only professional organization for PAs that covers all 50 states, the District of Columbia, as well as federal services and the armed forces. AAPA membership provides a number of benefits, such as advocacy, support and help with delivering quality health care to patients.
Resources for Physician Assistants