A physician assistant is an advanced healthcare provider who works in a variety of medical settings to provide patient care. PAs are trained in general medicine and, second only to physicians, undergo the highest level of clinical education within the medical profession.1
Given the breadth of their training, PAs practice in all spheres of clinical care, and the demand for their skills and expertise is high. The U.S. News & World Report ranks the profession not only as the second-best healthcare job, but also as the third-best job in the United States.2 The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates the occupation will grow 28% between 2021 and 2031, which translates to roughly 38,400 job openings for PAs during that time frame.3
If you’re interested in becoming a PA and taking advantage of this profession’s rapid expansion, read on to learn more about what a PA is, what their primary duties are, how much they earn, and how you can become one.
What Is a PA?
Physician assistants, also known as “physician associates,” are licensed to practice clinical medicine under the supervision of a physician to provide primary medical care. As generalists, they treat the entire patient while collaborating with a team of healthcare providers (such as surgeons, nurses, nurse practitioners, and others) across a variety of clinical care specializations including, but not limited to:4
- Internal medicine
- Emergency medicine
- Primary care
- Palliative care
The word “assistant” in their title can be misleading. While PAs practice under the supervision of a physician, they also have some autonomy; depending on their state and setting of practice, the physicians with whom they work may not need to practice at the same location.
The Primary Duties of a PA
Physician assistants perform a broad range of duties. In fact, many of their responsibilities are similar to those of licensed physicians.
A PA’s scope of practice varies from state to state and the medical environment in which they practice, but generally speaking, their responsibilities span the following:5
- Conducting comprehensive medical histories
- Administering and interpreting diagnostic tests, including blood tests and X-rays
- Performing physical examinations and procedures
- Assisting with surgeries, such as making incisions
- Performing hospital rounds
- Diagnosing illnesses and injuries
- Determining treatment plans for patients
- Monitoring a patient’s progress and health status
- Carrying out clinical research
- Giving immunizations
- Prescribing medications
- Providing at-home assistance
- Documenting patients’ health
- Consulting and communicating with other healthcare providers
- Counseling patients and their families on treatment and preventive care
When Did the PA Profession Start?
The profession of physician assistant was borne out of necessity in the early 1960s, during a critical shortage of primary care physicians.
Duke University Medical Center initiated the first physician assistant program in 1965, and by 1973, the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) established the first certifying exam for physician assistants.6 As of October 3, 2022, there are 293 physician assistant programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for Physician Assistants (ARC-PA) across the United States.7
Where Do Physician Assistants Practice?
In addition to the broader question—what is a PA?—many people who are curious about the profession are interested to learn where physician assistants practice.
Broadly speaking, licensed physician assistants practice in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories. The settings in which PAs administer medical care are as wide-ranging as their duties and may include:8
- Emergency rooms/acute care facilities
- Operating rooms
- Nursing homes
- Community clinics
- Physicians’ offices
- State, local, and private hospitals
- Outpatient care facilities
- Community health centers
- Mental health facilities
Furthermore, physician assistants can provide medical care across educational and government environments. For instance, PAs may administer medical care to those serving in the armed forces.
How Much Do PAs Earn?
The median physician assistant salary is an annual income of $121,530, or $58.43 per hour—more than double the average income of individuals in the United States.9
The income for PAs, however, depends on the state and setting in which they practice. For instance, the median income for a PA in Connecticut is almost $142,000; in Hawaii, that number drops to around $95,000.10
The states where PAs can expect to make the highest earnings are as follows:11
- Rhode Island – Average annual income of $146,880
- Alaska – Average annual income of $145,830
- Connecticut – Average annual income of $141,790
- New Jersey – Average annual income of $140,080
- New Hampshire – Average annual income of $137,330
Is a Physician Assistant the Same as a Nurse Practitioner?
In addition to asking What does a physician assistant do? many inquire if the profession is synonymous with that of a nurse practitioner, or NP.
In short: No, it is not.
While the general public may use the terms “PA” and “NP” almost interchangeably—and while there are areas of significant overlap between the two medical professions, including the ability to prescribe medications and treat injuries—there are also fundamental differences.
Chief among these differences is the fact that PAs must undergo 2,000 hours of supervised clinical rotations, as opposed to the 500–650 hours of clinical practice for an NP. However, nurse practitioners must earn a nursing-specific bachelor’s (BSN) degree and RN licensure before graduate school, and their master’s programs are typically several months longer than PA programs.
In addition, physician assistants are trained in general medicine, while nurse practitioners specialize in specific areas, such as family practice, psychiatric mental health, and adult-gerontology. Although PAs can elect to specialize further on in their career, they are deemed as generalists.
What’s Required to Become a PA?
PAs follow a rigorous, albeit rewarding, career path. They must earn a bachelor’s degree (ideally in a science-related field), then a master’s degree in physician assistant studies from an accredited program.
Throughout their educational career, PAs must study a wide spectrum of topics, including:12
- Anatomy and physiology
- Women’s health
- Behavioral and mental health
- Emergency medicine
- Medical decision making
After completing their coursework and clinical rotation hours in PA school, PAs are required to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), an exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Every two years, a physician assistant must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME). Furthermore, they must pass a recertification exam every 10 years.13
How long is PA school? From start to finish, after earning an undergraduate degree, earning a master’s degree in physician assistant studies generally takes 27 months, rendering it an attractive option for those who want to provide meaningful patient care at an accelerated pace.
What Are the Benefits of Becoming a Physician Assistant?
People elect to become physician assistants for various reasons, from the capacity to earn a healthy income to the ability to work directly with patients in need of life-saving care. The occupation also affords tremendous stability and job availability.
In addition, PAs have immense room for growth. While they’re trained in general medicine, they may choose to concentrate their energies on a particular field of interest, such as surgery or palliative care. Within this, they have the opportunity to explore new areas. Because PAs are trained in both general medicine and surgical education, it’s easy for PAs to change specialties: Six to seven percent of PAs change specialties each year and often don’t require new certifications.14
They may also pull in a higher income by accruing additional education and pursuing a high-demand specialty, such as radiology.
Some people become PAs from a desire to fill a gap in the medical profession. Research reveals that the existence of physician assistants has substantially improved healthcare access, and the U.S. healthcare system is increasingly reliant on PAs to improve cost savings and physician productivity.15
Additionally, the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) notes that 15% of clinical PAs work in rural communities. This means they can offer a significant impact on the health and lives of others, especially those who may need it most.16
Further, PAs are believed to be a vital component of modern healthcare. In a survey conducted by the American Academy of Physician Associates, 93% of respondents found physician assistants to be:17
- Trusted healthcare providers
- Excellent patient service providers
- Part of the solution to the shortage of healthcare providers
Respondents also agreed that physician assistants enhance health outcomes for patients and make it easier for patients to book medical appointments.
To recap, physician assistants work alongside other medical professionals to provide general care to patients across a variety of specializations. PAs are increasingly in demand across the United States, and because of this, their employment growth rate surpasses that of most professions, giving PAs plenty of job stability and availability, along with a respectable salary. Perhaps most profoundly, the role of a physician assistant gives individuals the opportunity to help people in their communities live longer, happier, and healthier lives.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) is developing a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) program. We will begin accepting applications in April 2023 for our first cohort, which will start in January 2024. The program will be held in person on our campus in Austin, Texas, and will consist of a four-trimester didactic phase and a three-trimester clinical phase. Students will complete seven core rotations in a variety of outpatient settings and hospitals, plus two elective rotations of their choice.
USAHS’ MSPAS program has applied for Accreditation-Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). USAHS’ MSPAS anticipates matriculating its first MSPAS class in January 2024, pending achieving Accreditation-Provisional status at the September 2023 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation-Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding Accreditation-Provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.
In the event that the program is not granted Accreditation-Provisional status by the ARC-PA, students accepted into USAHS’ MSPAS program will receive a full refund of their deposit and the program will not matriculate in January 2024.