How to Become a Physician Assistant

Physician Assistants are trusted members of most medical teams who perform a variety of critical procedures including examinations, diagnoses and therapies. PAs may assist a surgeon during surgical procedures as well as prescribe medications. The occupation of Physician Assistant is a challenging and competitive one with many demands on its practitioners, but it can also be enormously rewarding to witness the recovery of ill or injured patients.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Physician Assistants made on average $86,410 in 2010. In many settings like hospital staff and doctors’ offices this could exceed almost $93,000 in annual salary, while states like Texas and California averaged salaries that were almost $100,000. This profession is also expected to grow rapidly in the coming years. There were 83,600 Physician Assistants in 2010, but this is expected to grow by 30 percent in 2020. In the next few years almost 24,700 new Physician Assistant jobs will become available.

Find Physician Assistant Requirements By State

The exact steps on how to become a Physician Assistant can vary by state, some general guidelines are as follows:

Step 1: Graduate from a Physician Assistant Degree Program

Choosing to become a Physician Assistant is most often made while in college, but many prospective PAs who identify their career choice in high school may find additional educational opportunities. While the majority of prospective PAs enroll in a Master’s level Physician Assistant program at a graduate school which has Accreditation Review Commission on Education for Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) certification, a small minority of students enroll in a five year Bachelor’s/Master’s degree PA program which shaves a year off of the process.

PA students are expected to acquire a variety of academic skills necessary for success in a highly technical medical environment. Basic courses in anatomy, biology, and organic chemistry can provide the foundational knowledge that will allow students to succeed in advanced PA courses like:

  • Biostatistics and Epidemiology
  • Patient Assessment
  • Neurology
  • Dermatology
  • Hematology

Step 2: Complete Clinical Experience Requirements

In order to demonstrate that prospective PAs possess the requisite proficiencies in a clinical setting, most states require that PA license applicants perform a minimum of several months of clinical work under the supervision of a licensed Physician Assistant. Applicants usually complete this internship experience through their PA degree program.

Step 3: Take the National Certification Exam

In order to practice as a Physician Assistant, you must take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. If you do not pass the exam, you may retake the exam after 90 days with a limit of three times in a calendar year. The PANCE exam is a computer based multiple choice exam that costs $475 to take.

Step 4: Apply for a State License

The exact requirements to apply for a Physician Assistant license depend upon the state licensing body, but the majority of states follow a procedure similar to the following:
Submit a signed and completed application
Provide a check or money order for the licensing fee
Request that all colleges and universities attended forward a transcript to the licensing body
Request that the NCCPA forward a score report to the licensing body
Request that any states where you have served as a PA forward a verification of licensure
It is not uncommon for licensing boards to take four to eight weeks to process an application and issue a license.

Step 5: Maintain Licensure

In order to qualify for license renewal following expiration of current license, most states require that Physician Assistant complete a certain number of continuing education hours. While this number may vary from state to state, in order to maintain national certification, licensed Physician Assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years.

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