Becoming a Physician Assistant: Overview of a Booming Healthcare Career

What Is a Physician Assistant (PA)?

A physician assistant is a licensed health professional who practices medicine under physician supervision. A PA can perform a comprehensive range of medical tasks, ranging from basic family care to surgical procedures. PAs provide their patients with preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic care.

Why Are Physician Assistants Needed?

Lack of physician accessibility was a major factor leading to the development of physician assistant programs. Sufficient numbers of physicians were and continue to be unavailable to manage growing patient loads, particularly in underserved locations such as rural areas and inner cities.

In addition to problems with accessibility, concerns about healthcare costs have led to the increased use of what are called “physician extenders.” Allied healthcare professionals such as PAs and nurse practitioners are able to provide many medical services normally provided by a physician, but at significantly less cost.

Have Physician Assistants Always Been Around?

The profession actually emerged in the mid-60s, when wartime military medics and medical corpsmen began returning to civilian life. Duke University established the first physician assistant program in 1965, utilizing veterans trained in medic procedures. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), an influential professional organization, was established in 1968. By 1971, the American Medical Association recognized physician assistants as a professional and began to collaborate on certifications, billing codes, and other procedures. The rest, as they say, is history!

Today over a quarter of a billion patient visits are made to PAs in the U.S. each year, and an estimated 70,000 – 80,000 PAs are at work.

What Are the Training Requirements?

In order to become a PA, an individual must have several years of healthcare experience and at least two years of college credits. Formal PA training includes one year of classroom instruction and one year of clinical rotations in a variety of treatment settings. Most programs are completed in a little more than two years.

Once an individual graduates from a PA training program, he or she must sit for a national examination in order to become certified as a Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).

What Are the Duties of a PA?

The answer to that question depends on everything from your training and experience to the preferences of the supervising physician – and even the practice laws of your state. Generally, PAs can learn to perform an estimated 80% of the routine duties performed by physicians. Some of their most common duties include:

  • Performing physical examination
  • Taking medical histories
  • Ordering and interpreting laboratory tests
  • Diagnosing illnesses
  • Assisting with surgical procedures
  • Prescribing medication
  • Providing ongoing medical care

All duties are performed under the supervision of a physician.

Can I Specialize?

Absolutely! Over 60 medical specialties exist for physician assistants who want to work with a particular disease, set of procedures, or patient population. Some of the most popular specialty areas include:

  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Emergency medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Surgery
  • Hospital medicine
  • Dermatology
  • Geriatrics
  • Occupational medicine
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Oncology
  • Psychiatry

What Are My Career Prospects?

A career as a physician assistant is often cited as one of the most desirable careers today. Demand is high, and salaries are quite competitive, ranging as high as six figures for experienced providers. PAs can have a great deal of flexibility in their fields of practice, schedules, and work settings.

A career as a physician assistant may be just what the doctor ordered!

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