The Basics

First off, it helps to have a handle on exactly what a physician assistant is. And for that matter, it helps to know that the name of such a professional is a physician assistant, not a physician’s assistant. I figured that one out after a few months.

Googling “physician assistant” will net you a wealth of information on the profession. The first site that pops up is the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics site on the profession.

The site does a great job of describing the position:

Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They should not be confused with Medical assistants, who perform routine clinical and clerical tasks. (Medical assistants are discussed elsewhere in the Handbook.) PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive health care services, as delegated by a physician. Working as members of the health care team, they take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and x rays, and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries, by suturing, splinting, and casting. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy. In 48 States and the District of Columbia, physician assistants may prescribe some medications. In some establishments, a PA is responsible for managerial duties, such as ordering medical supplies or equipment and supervising technicians and assistants.

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician. However, PAs may be the principal care providers in rural or inner city clinics where a physician is present for only one or two days each week. In such cases, the PA confers with the supervising physician and other medical professionals as needed and as required by law. PAs also may make house calls or go to hospitals and nursing care facilities to check on patients, after which they report back to the physician.

The duties of physician assistants are determined by the supervising physician and by State law. Aspiring PAs should investigate the laws and regulations in the States in which they wish to practice.

Many PAs work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine. Other specialty areas include general and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics. PAs specializing in surgery provide preoperative and postoperative care and may work as first or second assistants during major surgery.

The BLS site also does a good job of highlighting some important points on the profession:

  • PAs must attend an accredited program and pass a Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE)
  • The typical PA program requires at least some college courses (if not a degree) as prerequisites and lasts two to three years
  • Job opportunities are expected to grow more than the average for all professions, especially in rural and urban areas

There are several reasons I chose to become a PA:

  • PAs fill a more diagnostic and medically-based role than a nurse while still having much of the patient interaction that nurses have.
  • PAs require less initial training than MDs (by a lot). Typically, there is about one year of classroom training followed by 12 or more months of clinical training. Assuming four years for a bachelor’s degree (five, in my case), that makes six to seven years total. A physician may take up to 11 or 12 years (beginning as an undergrad) to become a fellow. Still, training is ongoing throughout the span of a PA’s career. They are required to take at least 100 hours of continuing education every two years and to recertify via an exam.
  • Starting wages are high. A survey by the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) showed that the average 2006 respondent earned about $73,000 a year starting.

Many agree that the profession has an excellent outlook for growth in the future. In 2006, Money Magazine rated the PA career as the number five best job in America based on these criteria, which include the BLS stats. Basically, it pays well, it has opportunity for growth between now and 2016 and it scores highly based on “stress levels, flexibility in hours and working environment, creativity, and how easy it is to enter and advance in the field.”

<-Back to “How to Get Into a PA program”


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