Physician Assistant Job Outlook
Physician assistants (PAs) are essential members of the health care profession who care for millions of patients every week, providing primary care as well as a broad range of specialty care to people of all ages.
The profession is thriving. From 2010 to 2017, the PA field grew 53.8% and by the end of 2017, there were 123,089 Certified PAs in the United States, according to the 2017 Statistical Profile of Certified Physicians Assistants.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 37% job growth for physician assistants between 2016 and 2026, which is considered much faster than average for other jobs. There is a particularly high demand for PAs in rural and medically underserved areas.
For those interested in becoming a physician assistant, a physician assistant career starts with education.
What Can You Do With a Physician Assistant Degree?
After getting into PA school, physician assistant graduates can move toward a career as a PA, where the median salary is $108,610 per year (as of 2018), according to the BLS. Upon earning a physician assistant degree, graduates are equipped with the foundation of knowledge they need to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination or PANCE. This mandatory exam is required to earn certification to practice as a licensed physician assistant. Depending on the area of interest, physician assistants can specialize in areas such as dermatology, cardiology, obstetrics and gynecology, and pathology.
5 Steps to Become a Physician Assistant
The path to becoming a PA includes:
- Earning a college degree with a major or coursework in science-related subjects such as biology, physiology, anatomy, and chemistry.
- Working in a health care setting that demonstrates interest in patient care.
- Applying to a physician assistant program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
- Graduating with a master’s degree in PA studies from a PA program. Programs typically run two years and include in-class learning and clinical rotations.
- Taking the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), which is required to practice. Before working, state licensure is also required for PAs.
Physician Assistant Job Description
Physician assistants work in concert with a supervising physician. State laws vary when it comes to a PA’s scope of practice, but many allow autonomy.
Physician assistants typically provide a range of care, including:
- Taking and reviewing patient medical histories.
- Examining patients.
- Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, such as X-rays or blood work.
- Diagnosing patient conditions.
- Administering treatment, such as setting broken bones and immunizing patients.
- Educating patients and their families about disease prevention and other health care issues.
- Prescribing medication.
- Assessing and recording patient progress.
- Researching new treatments in order to provide the best patient care.
- Conducting health outreach programs in the community.
- Visiting patients at home or in nursing and assisted care facilities.
The typical workday of a physician assistant will vary depending on their medical specialty and the type of practice in which they work.
Top Physician Assistant Specialties
Physician assistants work in many specialties and also provide general primary care. It is often much easier for PAs to switch specialties than it is for medical doctors. Having a PA degree can grant you flexibility to move from one specialty to another according to interest, geography, and job opportunities. While physician assistant job growth is generally rapid, some specialties are in particular demand, such as dermatology, orthopedics, and urgent care.
Dermatology Physician Assistant Careers
Dermatology physician assistants examine patients in order to diagnose and treat a variety of medical, surgical, and cosmetic skin conditions. They also provide screening exams, preventive care, and education. Dermatology PAs collaborate with a dermatologist, often in a private office setting, which enables the practice to care for more patients. A typical day for a dermatology PA might include:
- Reviewing labs and biopsy results.
- Examining patients.
- Prescribing medications.
- Educating patients on skin care.
- Performing skin biopsies, excisions, cryotherapy, and other treatment procedures.
- Charting patient conditions and treatments.
- Completing continuing medical education.
First-year dermatology physician assistants earn approximately $90,000 per year, a starting salary comparable to other PA specialties, but highly specialized and experienced dermatology PAs have reported a base salary of $150,000 a year and $84,000 in annual bonuses, according to the 2018 American Academy of PAs Salary Report.
Orthopedic Physician Assistant Career
Another physician assistant specialty is orthopedics, the branch of medicine concerned with bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Physician assistants in orthopedics may perform the following duties:
- Recording patient histories.
- Performing examinations.
- Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests.
- Prescribing medications, devices, and therapy.
- Assisting in orthopedic surgeries.
- Performing procedures such as tendon repairs, wound closures and debridement, injection of joints, and fracture management.
- Conducting post-op rounds in a hospital setting.
- Admitting and discharging hospital patients.
Note: Physician assistants in orthopedics should not be confused with orthopedic physician assistants (OPAs). Physician assistants in orthopedics obtain the aforementioned graduate-level degrees, national certification, and state licenses and can practice general medicine. However, the scope of practice for OPAs is more limited than that of a PA. Duties of an OPA may include assisting an orthopedic surgeon or working as an orthopedic technologist applying casts, splints, and braces.
Urgent Care Physician Assistant Career
As the physician shortage continues, urgent care centers may become an essential source of health care for many people. Because of their generalist medical training, urgent care physician assistants are well qualified to provide urgent care services or practice emergency medicine. Duties of an urgent care physician assistant might include the following for urgent care patients:
- Performing medical exams.
- Recording medical histories.
- Ordering diagnostic tests, including blood work and imaging.
- Referring more serious or chronic conditions to the emergency department, primary care doctors, or specialists.
- Prescribing medication.
An important part of an urgent care physician assistant’s job is to quickly determine when a patient requires more advanced care than is available at an urgent care facility.
Physician Assistant Salary Expectations
Average Salary of a Physician Assistant
Compensation rates for physician assistants vary by state, experience, specialty, and work context, but the national average salary of a physician assistant is $108,430, according to 2018 figures reported by the BLS. Connecticut has the highest annual average salary of $125,610. Physician assistants working in outpatient care centers have the highest annual salaries compared to PAs working in physician offices, general hospitals, and other health care settings.
Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner Salary
Nurse practitioners can also prescribe medication, examine patients, diagnose illnesses, and provide treatment. NPs and PAs are both mid-level medical practitioners. The median salary for physician assistants in 2018 was $108,610, while the median salary for nurse practitioners (NPs) the same year was $107,030, according to the BLS. (Note: The category of NPs includes general nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists. The latter two groups are typically paid more than general nurse practitioners.)
Median Physician Assistant Salary by State
The median physician assistant salary varies from state to state, with some of the highest average PA salaries found in West Coast states, including Hawaii ($121,120) and California ($117,230).
There are job opportunities for physician assistants throughout the country; however, the highest location quotients are on the East Coast and in the Mountain states.
For those with a passion for helping others, being a physician assistant can be a fulfilling career option.