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What Physician Assistants Do About this section

Physician assistants
Physician assistants examine patients and assess their health.

Physician assistants, also known as PAs, examine, diagnose, and treat patients under the supervision of a physician.

Duties

Physician assistants typically do the following:

  • Obtain and review patients’ medical histories
  • Examine patients
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests, such as x rays or blood tests
  • Diagnose a patient’s injury or illness
  • Provide treatment, such as setting broken bones, stitching wounds, and immunizing patients
  • Educate and counsel patients and their families on a variety of issues, such as treatment and self-care for asthma
  • Prescribe medication
  • Assess and record a patient’s progress
  • Research the latest treatments to ensure quality of patient care

Physician assistants are on teams with physicians or surgeons and other healthcare workers. The amount of collaboration and the extent to which they must be supervised by physicians or surgeons differ by state.

Physician assistants work in a variety of healthcare specialties, including primary care and family medicine, emergency medicine, and psychiatry. The work of physician assistants depends, in large part, on their specialty or the type of medical practice in which they work. For example, a physician assistant working in surgery may close incisions and provide care before, during, and after an operation. A physician assistant working in pediatrics may examine a child and give routine vaccinations.

In some areas, especially rural and medically underserved communities, physician assistants may be the primary care providers at clinics where a physician is present only 1 or 2 days per week. In these locations, physician assistants collaborate with the physician as needed and as required by law.

Some physician assistants make house calls or visit nursing homes to treat patients.

Physician assistants differ from nurse practitioners in their training and the level of care they provide; for example, nurse practitioners cannot provide surgical care, whereas physician assistants can. They also differ from medical assistants, who do routine clinical and clerical tasks but do not practice medicine.

Work Environment About this section

Physician assistants
Many physician assistants work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine.

Physician assistants held about 139,100 jobs in 2021. The largest employers of physician assistants were as follows:

Offices of physicians 51%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 23
Outpatient care centers 10
Educational services; state, local, and private 4
Government 2

Working with patients can be both physically and emotionally demanding. Physician assistants spend much of their time standing or walking to make rounds and evaluate patients. Physician assistants who work in operating rooms often stand for extended periods.

Work Schedules

Most physician assistants work full time. Work schedules vary and may include nights, weekends, or holidays. Physician assistants also may be on call, meaning that they must be ready to respond to a work request with little notice.

How to Become a Physician Assistant About this section

Physician assistants
Physician assistants must be able to communicate medical issues in a way that patients understand.

Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. Applicants to these programs typically have a bachelor's degree and experience caring directly for patients. All states require physician assistants to be licensed.

Education

Applicants to physician assistant education programs typically have a bachelor’s degree and some experience with patient care. Although programs vary, most require applicants to have taken undergraduate coursework with a focus in science. Bachelor's degrees are often in healthcare or a related field, such as biology. Programs also may require that applicants have experience as a medical assistant, EMT or paramedic, or another occupation that involves patient care.

Physician assistant education programs usually take at least 2 years of postbaccalaureate study. A list of accredited physician assistant programs is available from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA).

Physician assistant education includes classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects such as human anatomy, clinical medicine, and pharmacology. The programs also include supervised clinical training in several specialties, such as family medicine, internal medicine, and emergency medicine.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be licensed. To become licensed, candidates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). A physician assistant who passes the exam may use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).”

To maintain their PA-C certification, physician assistants must complete continuing education and pass a recertification exam within a specified number of years.

In most states, laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician. Although the physician does not need to be onsite at all times, collaboration between physicians and physician assistants is required for practice.

Physician assistant positions may require basic life support (BLS) certification.

Advancement

Some physician assistants pursue additional education in a specialty. Postgraduate programs are available in specialties such as emergency medicine and psychiatry. To enter one of these programs, a physician assistant must be a graduate of an accredited program and have their PA-C. Additional certification in specialty areas is offered by the NCCPA.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Physician assistants must explain complex medical issues in a way that patients can understand.

Compassion. Physician assistants deal with patients who are sick or injured and who may be in extreme pain or distress. They must be sympathetic toward and understanding of patients and their families.

Detail oriented. Physician assistants should be observant and have a strong ability to focus when evaluating and treating patients.

Emotional stability. Physician assistants, particularly those working in surgery or emergency medicine, should work well under pressure. They must remain calm in stressful situations in order to provide quality care.

Interpersonal skills. Physician assistants must work well as part of a team of other healthcare professionals to ensure proper patient care.

Problem-solving skills. Physician assistants need to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments. They must be diligent when investigating complicated medical issues so they can determine the best course of treatment for each patient.

Pay About this section

Physician Assistants

Median annual wages, May 2021

Physician assistants

$121,530

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

$81,270

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for physician assistants was $121,530 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $77,940, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $164,620.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for physician assistants in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Outpatient care centers $128,430
Hospitals; state, local, and private 127,240
Offices of physicians 121,010
Government 106,910
Educational services; state, local, and private 101,040

Most physician assistants work full time. Work schedules vary and may include nights, weekends, or holidays. Physician assistants also may be on call, meaning that they must be ready to respond to a work request with little notice.

Job Outlook About this section

Physician Assistants

Percent change in employment, projected 2021-31

Physician assistants

28%

Healthcare diagnosing or treating practitioners

9%

Total, all occupations

5%

 

Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 28 percent from 2021 to 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

About 12,700 openings for physician assistants are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

The growing population will continue to increase demand for healthcare services. A rise in the number of older people, who are more likely than young people to require medical care, and of patients with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, will also increase healthcare demand. These increases, in turn, drive the need for healthcare providers such as physician assistants (PAs), who often provide preventive care and treat the sick.

PAs, who can provide many of the same services as physicians, are expected to continue to expand their role in providing healthcare services for a number of reasons. They can be trained more quickly than physicians, and team-based healthcare provision models will continue to evolve and become more common. Furthermore, states continue to expand allowable procedures and autonomy, and insurance companies are extending coverage to physician assistant services.

Employment projections data for physician assistants, 2021-31
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Physician assistants

29-1071 139,100 177,500 28 38,400 Get data

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