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To someone with minimal understanding of the health sector, the title of “physician assistant” may conjure up an image of someone whose job involves running professional errands for doctors. However, physician assistants (PAs) are highly trained professionals qualified to diagnose, monitor and prescribe medication to patients.
PA duties often overlap with doctors’, yet both medical experts have varying levels of autonomy at work. Doctors are legally allowed to practice independently, but PAs typically need a physician’s supervision to treat patients.
The rising demand for PAs goes to show that medical school and nursing school aren’t the only paths to an advanced career in healthcare. In this article, we discuss how to become a physician assistant, including common specializations and salary and job outlook data for these professionals.
What Is a Physician Assistant?
Also called physician associates, PAs are licensed healthcare personnel who support physicians in providing medical care. They work alongside doctors, giving treatment and monitoring patients’ health.
Although some states allow physician assistants to work independently, most require them to work under doctors’ supervision. PAs administer tests, prescribe medication and conduct physical examinations. Other PA responsibilities include:
- Taking patients’ medical histories
- Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
- Assisting in surgical procedures
- Referring patients to specialists
- Developing treatment plans
- Counseling patients on preventive care
- Monitor patients’ progress
- Conducting clinical research
Physician assistants work in various settings such as hospitals, medical offices, outpatient clinics and surgery wards. Outside of from medical environments, PAs also work in educational facilities, military organizations and sports settings.
Most PAs work full time, with varying work schedules that may include weekends and holidays. Like doctors, they may be on call, having to work on short notice for long periods. Interacting with patients and colleagues for hours can become fatiguing, so PAs should have good stamina and interpersonal skills.
How To Become a Physician Assistant
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
Obtaining a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college is the first step to becoming a physician assistant. PA programs typically accept applicants from various backgrounds, but we recommend a science-focused major, which will help you apply credits from your undergraduate coursework toward your PA prerequisites.
Gain Healthcare Experience (HCE) or Patient Care Experience (PCE)
The American Academy of Physician Associates recommends that prospective PAs gain healthcare or patient care experience before applying to graduate school. HCE refers to paid or unpaid work where you’re not directly responsible for patient care, but you may still interact with patients. PCE, on the other hand, requires hands-on involvement in treating patients.
Most PA programs require at least 1,000 HCE or PCE hours, typically earned after working for about a year in the health sector. Roles that meet clinical experience requirements include paramedic, medical technician, surgical assistant, hospice worker, dental assistant, physical therapy aide and phlebotomist.
Enroll in an Accredited PA Program
In a PA graduate program, you’ll gain the advanced knowledge needed to pass the national certifying exam and begin your physician assistant career. A PA program involves coursework in clinical anatomy, histology, clinical therapeutics and medicine principles. You may also undergo clinical rotations or clerkships, which involve shadowing licensed PAs.
Several colleges offer online PA programs, for distance learners. Such PA programs often offer concentrations, allowing students to tailor their degrees to suit their career goals. Common PA specializations include family medicine, geriatrics, women’s health, psychiatry, pediatrics and general internal medicine.
Students can apply for admission via the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). CASPA requires PA applicants to submit college transcripts, recommendation letters, résumés, personal statements, and HCE and PCE records.
Ensure your chosen program is approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) before applying.
Graduates from programs that hold accreditation from ARC-PA qualify to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying exam (PANCE). The exam is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
The PANCE is a five-hour, multiple-choice exam that assesses candidates’ medical and surgical knowledge. Passing the PANCE is required to earn PA licensure in all U.S states. Other specific licensing requirements may vary by state.
How Long Does it Take To Become a Physician Assistant?
Completing all of the above steps often takes at least seven years. You can expect to spend four years in your undergraduate program, one year gaining healthcare experience and two years completing a PA program. The path to becoming a PA may take longer if you spend more time gaining experience between undergrad and grad school or if you need extra time to study for and pass the PANCE.
Physician Assistant Salary and Job Outlook
According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physician assistants earned a median annual salary of $126,010 as of May 2022. Individual salaries vary based on industry, experience level and geographical location. For example, PAs in Washington earn $145,390 per year on average, whereas Florida PAs average $110,930 yearly.
Physician assistants are highly sought-after in certain parts of the U.S., including Connecticut, New York, North Carolina, Nebraska and Montana, which sport the highest concentrations of PA jobs. The BLS projects employment for these professionals to increase by 28% from 2021 to 2031—three times the projected job growth rate for other health practitioners nationwide, and nearly six times the projected growth rate for all U.S. jobs.
Physician Assistant Specializations
Physician assistants, just like nurses and clinicians, can specialize in various areas of healthcare according to their strengths and interests. PAs’ specialties largely determine their salary range and the kind of patients they’ll work with.
Most PA programs offer elective options, and some require students to complete supervised clinical experience in multiple specialty areas. We recommend deciding your PA specialization before enrolling in graduate school so you can choose a program offering in-depth training in your area of interest.
Below we list some common specializations for PA students and professionals.
This specialty teaches prospective PAs how to triage, stabilize and manage patients experiencing urgent health problems. In the emergency medicine specialty, students also learn how to present cases to doctors and develop skills to work with urgent care teams.
Obstetrics and Gynecology
This concentration equips PA students with extensive knowledge on childbirth, midwifery and the female reproductive system in general. They learn to provide prenatal and postpartum care to women and offer counseling on family planning.
Pediatric PAs support pediatricians by caring for infants and children in ambulatory settings. Students in this concentration learn to evaluate common pediatric problems, offer preventive care and interpret treatment plans to their patients’ guardians.
The surgery specialization prepares PA students to evaluate and monitor surgical patients. They learn how to provide preoperative and postoperative care to surgical patients.
This specialization focuses on caring for and supporting patients living with psychiatric challenges. Students in this specialty learn how to conduct psychiatric evaluations, monitor patients’ progress and refer people to behavioral health specialists.
Certifications for Physician Assistant
The certified physician assistant (PA-C) credential is the primary certification for PAs, earned only after passing the physician assistant national certifying exam. The PANCE is a five-hour exam comprising 300 multiple choice questions, administered in five blocks of 60 questions. Candidates are allowed to take 45-minute breaks between sessions.
Before sitting for the PANCE, candidates must graduate from a program accredited by the ARC-PA. Prospective PAs can apply for the exam within 180 days of their graduation date, but they can only sit for the exam starting seven days after graduation. You must submit a $550 fee and an application, after which you’ll receive an acknowledgement email from NCCPA with further instructions. If you fail the first attempt, you can retake the exam after 90 days.
Aside from the PA-C, NCCPA offers voluntary credentials for 10 PA specialties:
- Cardiovascular and thoracic surgery
- Emergency medicine
- Hospital medicine
- Orthopedic surgery
- Pallitive medicine and hospice care
- Obstetrics and gynecology
These credentials are called certificates of added qualifications (CAQs). They provide PAs with recognition for their specialized skills.
Professional Organizations for Physician Assistant
Although not required, joining a professional organization can boost a PA’s credibility and expand their opportunities for career development. Below we highlight two professional organizations created to support physician assistants.
- American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA): Founded in 1968, AAPA is the leading national PA professional organization. It represents over 168,000 PAs across all 50 U.S states. The AAPA empowers its members to advance their careers and Excellerate patient health.
- Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA): PAEA represents PA educational programs in the U.S. It supports programs in recruiting and retaining qualified faculty and PA students. It also provides various study tools for PA certifications.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About How to Become a Physician Assistant
Is a PA equal to a doctor?
PAs are not equal to doctors because doctors have more extensive training in the medical field and the authority to treat patients autonomously. In most states, PAs can only provide medical care according to doctors’ instructions.
What is the difference between a PA and MD?
PAs and MDs undergo different training experiences. While it takes about seven years to become a PA, MDs require 10-14 years of training. MDs also typically earn more salary than PAs.
Is a PA higher than an RN?
A PA typically has more training and clinical experience than a registered nurse. PAs, like physicians, can diagnose illnesses and prescribe medication. RNs cannot.