Physician Assistant Career Information and Job Description

The physician assistant designation was originally created in the mid-1960s to address the primary care physician shortage, these highly skilled medical professionals still represent a versatile component of the U.S. healthcare workforce, alleviating provider shortages and increasing the efficiency of the healthcare system. According to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, 100,000 certified physician assistants work in the United States today.

With an average salary of $90,000 (as of 2013) and a 38 percent increase in the number of employment opportunities through 2022, today’s physician assistants are poised to enjoy strong salaries and opportunities for professional advancement.

Physician assistants practice medicine, playing a broad and ever-expanding role within a healthcare system that is evolving to face new challenges – an aging baby boomer population, an increase in managed care, and an increased focus on disease prevention and wellness. Physician assistants are able to work in a variety of practice areas and settings, providing care at a much lower cost than physicians are able to. (They often earn between one-third and one-half as much as physicians in the same specialty.)

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) reports that physician assistants provide care that is comparable to the care that physicians provide. Physician assistants are known to enhance the coordination of care, improve patient outcomes, and increase patient satisfaction.

Physician assistants deliver medical and surgical care alongside physicians, who oversee their work and provide medical supervision. States dictate the work of physician assistants, determining the types of services they provide. In many states, physicians determine their scope of work, including their range of medical tasks and their method of supervision. However, some states have more explicit rules and regulations in place regarding both supervisory and practice requirements.

Physician Assistant Job Description

The services that physician assistants provide may include diagnostic evaluations, therapeutic remediation, surgical assistance, and pharmaceutical prescription. They practice medicine in every setting and in every specialty.
Physician assistants:

  • Order and interpret tests
  • Take a patient’s medical history
  • Counsel patients on preventive care
  • Conduct physical examinations
  • Diagnose and treat illnesses
  • Write prescriptions
  • Assist in surgeries

The duties of physician assistants, however, largely depend on:

  • The setting in which they work
  • Their experience/level of expertise
  • Their specialty
  • The state in which they practice

In general practices, physician assistants are likely to see patients in need of physical examinations, psychological assessments, laboratory testing, surgical consultations, or infectious disease diagnoses. In more specialized clinics, physician assistants may provide all of these services, along with services that are unique to that medical specialty. For example, an oncology doctor is more likely to require physician assistants to possess proficiency in cancer diagnostic tools, cancer treatments, and laboratory studies.

Some of the specialty practices in which physician assistants work include:

  • Family medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Internal medicine
  • Obstetrics/gynecology
  • General surgery
  • Oncology
  • Psychiatry/mental health
  • Emergency medicine

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), about one-third of all physician assistants in the U.S. practice in primary care, while about 38 percent practice in hospital settings and 37 percent work in a group practice or solo physician’s office. The remaining work in:

  • Community health centers
  • Freestanding surgical facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • School- or college-based facilities
  • Industrial settings
  • Correctional institutions

The largest employer of physician assistants in the U.S. is the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Role of the Physician Assistant

Physician assistant jobs involve providing a broad range of services that begin with an initial patient consultation and continue with ongoing care and assessment throughout the clinical relationship.

In the initial evaluation, physician assistants often initiate dialogue with the patient to determine the nature of the visit, followed by a physical examination. They detail the medical issue afflicting the patient and the patient’s medical history, and then submit it to the attending doctor for consultation. At this point, the physicians will likely decide how much intervention is required on their part—if any.

If the matter is of a more serious nature, physician assistants often take on a support role. They may monitor the patient through office visits, pre- or post-surgery visits, or through interactions with other medical specialists.

In many cases, physician assistants counsel patients and their families regarding treatments and patient management plans. They may also take on managerial duties in which they supervise nurses, aides, and other office personnel, while managing the office or clinic.

The Physician Assistant Career Path: How to Become a Physician Assistant

Individuals interested in becoming a physician assistant must complete a number of steps toward state licensure, the first of which involves completing an accredited physician assistant graduate program recognized by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

The AAPA reports that the typical student entering a physical assistant program possesses a bachelor’s degree and at least four years of healthcare experience.

The average graduate physician assistant program is 26 months in duration, and all programs award master’s degrees. Accredited physician assistant programs consist of classroom work, lab instruction, and clinical rotations. These programs include:

  • 75 hours in pharmacology
  • 175 hours in behavioral sciences
  • More than 400 hours in basic sciences
  • About 580 hours of clinical medicine
  • At least 2,000 hours of clinical rotations

Clinical rotations must include work in:

  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • Emergency medicine
  • General surgery
  • Psychiatry

Graduates of accredited physician assistant programs must:

  • Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants
  • Earn state licensure in the state they plan to practice

Physician assistants must maintain their state license and certification. Although state requirements vary, certification requirements do not, as all certified physician assistants must pass a recertification examination every 10 years and complete at least 100 hours of continuing medical education every 2 years.

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