Career Profile: Learn about Physician Assistants

If you’ve thought about becoming a Physician Assistant—or PA—you’re in good company. There are currently 139,100 PAs employed in the U.S. and the profession is growing much faster than most occupations. Check out the details below to learn about this exciting, challenging, rewarding career.

When did PAs become an established profession?

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the PA profession was developed to help address a shortage of primary care physicians in the 1960s. Duke University in North Carolina established the first PA program, basing their curriculum on the fast-track training of doctors during World War II. Their first PA class graduated in 1967.

By the year 2000 all 50 states authorized the PA profession and allowed PAs the authority to prescribe medication, an essential function that formerly only MDs were allowed to do.

What do PAs do?

Physician assistants examine, diagnose, and treat patients. They take medical histories from patients, order and interpret tests like x-rays or blood tests, and make diagnoses of illness or injury. They treat all types of patients in all areas of medicine, prescribe medications, and educate patients and their families about home care. Typically, PAs work on teams with other healthcare workers; state licensure laws require physician assistants to hold an agreement with a supervising physician.

What types of places and conditions do physician assistants work in?

About half of PAs work in doctors’ offices/clinics, about 25% of them work in hospitals, and the rest staff outpatient care centers, schools, and government programs. Many physician assistants work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine.

Most physician assistants work full time. They spend much of their time on their feet, making rounds and visiting patients. The work can be both physically and emotionally demanding. Working nights, weekends, or holidays may be required depending on the work setting. They may also be scheduled for “on call” hours, ready to respond to a work request with little notice.

What skills or personal qualities are needed to succeed as a PA?

The most important skills and qualities in this field are:

  • Communication skills. PAs must communicate effectively with others in their healthcare teams, and be able to explain complex medical issues in a way that patients can understand.
  • Compassion. PAs treat patients who are often in difficult or stressful circumstances, that require understanding and compassion.
  • Detail orientation. PAs must be observant, listen carefully, and focus consistently when evaluating and treating patients.
  • Emotional stability. PAs must remain calm in stressful situations in order to provide quality care.
  • Problem-solving skills. PAs must be diligent when investigating complicated medical issues to determine the best course of treatment for each patient.

How to become a physician assistant

Physician assistants typically need a master’s degree from an accredited educational program. PA programs include both classroom instruction and clinical rotations, and last approximately 27 months. All states require physician assistants to be licensed.

To apply to a PA program, applicants typically need to have a bachelor’s degree, and college coursework that includes these prerequisites:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • English Composition/Writing
  • Genetics
  • Medical Terminology
  • Psychology (general)
  • Statistics

Many PA programs also require that applicants have 2-3 years of experience with hands-on patient care, from work in fields such as:

  • Medical assistant
  • Emergency medical technician / Paramedic
  • Medic or medical corpsman
  • Lab assistant/phlebotomist
  • Registered nurse
  • Emergency room technician
  • Surgical tech
  • Certified nursing assistant

Salary expectations

In 2021, salaries for PAs ranged from about $78,000 to $165,000. The median salary for PAs was $121,530—this means that half of actively employed PAs earned more than that, and half earned less.

What is the job outlook for PAs?

Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 28% over the next decade. Much of this increased demand for PAs, and for healthcare in general, can be attributed to a rise in population, and in particular the number of older people and of patients with chronic diseases.

In addition, PAs can be trained more quickly than physicians, and team-based healthcare models will continue to evolve and become more common. States are expanding PAs’ autonomy and the procedures they are allowed to perform, and insurance companies are extending coverage to physician assistant services.

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