If the physician assistant field were a first date, it would be considered the "total package." Offering job security and satisfaction with impressive earning potential — a mean annual salary of $93,105 — it's also the second-fastest-growing health profession in the U.S., expected to grow 39 percent through 2018.
"All projections show a shortage of primary-care providers down the road," says John E. Padgett, an Army Special Forces medic in Vietnam who went on to serve as a PA in the Army Reserve and co-founded the School of Physician Assistant Studies at Touro University Nevada.
Physician assistants are health professionals licensed to practice in teams with physicians, says Jennifer Anne Hohman of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. PAs can be found in nearly every medical and surgical specialty and can perform a range of medical duties, from basic primary care — giving physical exams or treating illnesses, for example — to specialty procedures.
PAs are licensed to write prescriptions in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. They occupy a unique niche in medicine in that they are educated in a model designed to complement doctor training.
The parameters of an individual PA's job are determined by his education and experience, state law, and the policies of both the facility at which he works and his supervising physician.
Where you work
PAs work in doctor's offices, hospitals, urgent-care facilities and other health clinics. They work at colleges, universities and professional schools and for the military and federal government. An attractive benefit is the ability to move to a different specialty without additional training or certification, says Padgett, a member of the AAPA Veterans Caucus.
"If I am a family practice PA and I want to be a dermatology PA, I can do that," Padgett says. One relatively new and growing area is that of hospitalist PAs who practice exclusively in hospitals.
What you study
Applicants to PA programs first must complete at least two years of basic science and behavioral science, similar to what's required of medical students. Programs typically start with a year of basic medical sciences, followed by a clinical phase with rotations in medical specialties such as family medicine, obstetrics and emergency medicine. PA programs must be accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.
Some programs actively seek and give admission preference to veterans. The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants at https://portal.caspaonline.org">https://portal.caspaonline.org allows prospective students to apply for a number of different programs by submitting a single application.
Only those who pass a national certifying exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants may claim the title physician assistant-certified, or PA-C. To maintain certification, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and pass a recertification exam every six years.
PAs must have graduated from an accredited program and passed the NCCPA exam to be licensed by a state. Other licensing requirements vary from state to state, Padgett said, with some requiring an additional exam.