Career spotlight: Physician assistant

  • Physician assistants are qualified to perform examinations and make diagnoses.
    Physician assistants are qualified to perform examinations and make diagnoses.

    Career spotlight: Physician assistant

    If you are eager to enter the field of medicine but are uncertain about the idea of multiple years in medical school, you’ll be pleased to know that there are other career paths you can follow that will enable you to diagnose and treat patients. One notable option is to study to become a physician assistant. These professionals work alongside doctors to deliver outstanding health care, performing many of the same duties as qualified family physicians. Read on to learn more.

    What do physician assistants do?
    As detailed in a fact sheet published by Pace University, physician assistants must work in collaboration with a certified doctor – they are not permitted to practice independently. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the supervising physician must be in the room every time a PA meets with a patient – what it does mean is that the physician is the PA’s boss and go-to person, and that ultimately the responsibility for a patient lies with the doctor. 

    Under a physician’s guidance, these professionals are qualified to perform almost all of the same duties as their supervising doctors. For example, a physician assistant is able to examine patients for signs of illness and make diagnoses. And although mandates vary between states, physician assistants are commonly allowed to prescribe medications. They also place orders for testing and lab work and are able to educate patient populations about chronic disease management and preventative health strategies. 

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics explained how physician assistants can be found in a range of health care settings, from small private clinics to large hospitals. Physician assistants can work in any number of specialties, from family medicine to orthopedics to cardiology. 

    What education is needed?
    According to the BLS, a master’s degree is required in order to practice as a PA. The program must be accredited. The American Academy of Physician Assistants elaborated that PA master’s programs focus on a range of topics including microbiology, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology and more. There is also some focus on behavioral sciences.

    The source noted that in order to be accepted into a PA master’s program, students must have a similar educational background, in terms of courses previously taken, to those who apply to medical school to become physicians or surgeons. For example, as explained by working PA Jordan Hall, in an interview with Lifehacker, classes on topics such as genetics and organic chemistry were prerequisites for the institution he attended.

    “Admissions boards assess GRE and MCAT scores, as well as a candidate’s undergraduate GPA.”

    He also explained how admissions boards assess GRE and MCAT scores, as well as a candidate’s undergraduate grade point average, paying particular attention to academic performance in the sciences. It is also important for candidates to accrue a certain amount of work experience to support their applications. This typically involves shadowing a physician or other health care provider in a clinic or hospital. Hall explained that it is not uncommon for some programs to expect candidates to have completed at least 5,000 hours of clinical work experience. 

    A majority of PA master’s programs require students to study for three years, although Hall noted that in some cases it is possible to complete the advanced degree program in two years. The next step, after graduation, is to become licensed. This is achieved by studying for and passing the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam. 

    The education PAs receive is broad, and consequently, they are qualified to work in virtually any area of medicine, chairman of the physician assistant program at Seton Hall University, Chris Hannifin, told U.S. News & World Report – they can essentially choose their specialty, whether that’s family medicine or something more focused, such as pediatrics. PAs also have the freedom to move between specialties. Further education isn’t required.

    Salary prospects
    PAs receive substantial compensation. Careers website Payscale reported that the median nationwide salary for a PA in the U.S. currently stands at a little over $92,000 a year. Salaries in the six-figure range, in excess of $120,000 per annum, are by no means uncommon, particularly for those with more experience. Starting salaries are rarely less than $73,000 annually.

    Job outlook
    The AAPA explained how a majority of newly qualified PAs receive job offers, and many almost instantly. Indeed, some 75 percent of newly licensed PAs, will receive more than one job offer. This reflects the nationwide demand – the AAPA mentioned a study from Merritt Hawkins, a search firm for the health care industry, which found a staggering increase in demand for PAs between the years of 2011 and 2014, of some 300 percent. The source elaborated that the career path received the title of “most promising job in America,” by several publications, including Forbes.

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