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Physician Assistant Career Overview

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated April 18, 2023
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Physician assistants provide primary care under the supervision of a physician. This guide explores educational requirements, responsibilities, and salary potential for the role.
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How Long to Become

7-9 years

Job Outlook

28% projected growth from 2021-2031

Average Annual Salary



A physician assistant (PA) is a licensed healthcare professional who works under the supervision of a physician to provide comprehensive medical care to patients.

The position came about in the mid-1960s to expand healthcare access. The role quickly gained acceptance as a creative solution to a growing physician shortage in primary care.

Today, physician assistants are an integral part of the healthcare team in various settings and specialties. In this guide, you’ll discover more about the role of a PA, including work settings and common salaries.

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What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Master’s degree required
Certification required

According to the National Committee on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), the profession grew by 28.6% from 2016-2020.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for these workers to grow by 28% from 2021-2031. The NCCPA is the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States.

Most PAs are 39 years old or younger, reflecting an increase in the profession over the past 10 years. Interestingly, only 24% work in primary care, which includes family medicine, pediatrics, and internal medicine.

In 2020, roughly 148,000 certified physician assistants practiced professionally in the U.S., with the highest number of PAs in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Most states have more PAs in specialties or subspecialties than primary care roles. Data shows that private pay and private insurance patients are more likely than those on Medicare to visit a physician assistant.

Physician assistants share a similar scope of practice as physicians and nurse practitioners. PAs can conduct physical examinations, diagnose and treat health conditions, prescribe medications, order tests, and assist during surgery.

PAs work in many settings and specialties, including large teaching hospitals and smaller hospitals in rural areas. In the latter, they work with populations that may otherwise be medically underserved.

Physician assistants work in primary care, internal medicine subspecialties, and other areas including obstetrics and gynecology, hospice and palliative care, public health, and pain management.

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Key Responsibilities

  • Interview, examine, diagnose, and treat patient injuries and illnesses
  • Stitch wounds, set bones, and administer immunizations
  • Educate patients on preventive care
  • Research innovations and advances in medicine
  • Conduct outreach programs

Career Traits

  • Compassionate and emotionally stable
  • Flexible and adapts to rapidly changing circumstances
  • Detail-oriented
  • Team player who can also work independently
  • Efficient and organized

Where Do Physician Assistants Work?

BLS reporting indicates most physician assistants work in physician’s offices. Roughly 23% hold employment in hospitals, and the remaining professionals work in outpatient care centers, nursing homes, educational settings, and the government.


PAs work in intensive care units, operating rooms, and emergency departments. They spend more time collaborating with their supervising physician than PAs who work in an outpatient setting.

Like most hospital practitioners, PAs working in hospitals, excluding emergency departments, often see fewer patients each week than PAs in outpatient settings.

Outpatient Settings

In an outpatient setting, physician assistants provide comprehensive medical care to their patients. They may work in specialty or subspecialty clinics (i.e. cardiology, orthopedics, OBGYN, etc.) or physician’s offices. PAs may also find employment in urgent care settings

Correctional Facilities

These professionals assist physicians in providing diagnostic and therapeutic care to incarcerated people. Under the direction of a physician, they may assess and determine appropriate treatment plans, give medications, perform dressing changes, or suture minor lacerations.

How to Become a Physician Assistant

On average, it takes 7-9 years to complete your education and become a physician assistant. Candidates begin by completing their bachelor’s degrees, prerequisite college courses and healthcare experience hours. Admission to PA programs is highly competitive.

Applicants with high GPAs and at least 2,000 hours of healthcare experience often receive admission preference. Some schools do not require healthcare experience, while others require minimums of 1,000 or 2,000 hours.

On average, applicants have around 2,600 patient contact hours. They often obtain direct patient hours as paramedics, athletic trainers, respiratory therapists, and related positions.

Most students complete bachelor’s degrees before applying to PA programs. As with nursing programs, it is essential to attend an accredited program.

Coursework includes anatomy, physiology, behavioral science, and medical ethics. Each enrollee also completes 2,000 clinical hours with a preceptor. PA programs take approximately three years to complete.

After graduating from an accredited program, you are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). The NCCPA administers the exam.

You have up to six years and six attempts to pass the examination. If you do not pass the exam after six tries — or the time limit elapses — you can no longer qualify for certification. To take the PANCE again, fully complete an accredited program a second time.

After passing the PANCE, you must apply for and receive a state license. The requirements for state licensure vary by state.

To maintain your national certification, you need to complete at least 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years. You must also pass a recertification examination every 10 years.

Physician Assistant Concentrations and Practice Areas

There are over 70 specialties and subspecialties in which physician assistants can work. The NCCPA keeps track of the practice areas where PAs work for statistical analysis. The following are three of the most popular physician assistant practice areas.

Surgical Specialties

PAs practicing in surgical subspecialties assist with pre- and post-operative care, as well as during surgery. They more frequently work in the hospital but may split their time between in-hospital care and outpatient follow-up.

Percentage of Physician Assistants (2021)

Family Medicine and General Practice

A physician assistant working in family medicine or general practice more frequently sees patients in physician’s offices or outpatient clinics. Patients with chronic diseases and individuals seeking preventive care commonly see PAs.

Percentage of Physician Assistants (2021)

Emergency Medicine

In the emergency room or an urgent care center, a physician assistant may be involved in triage, diagnosis, and treatment of patients with urgent medical issues. They can order diagnostic tests, suture lacerations, or administer medications.

Percentage of Physician Assistants (2021)

How Much Do Physician Assistants Make?

There is a growing demand for PAs in the healthcare field. The BLS projects employment for these professionals to grow by 28% from 2021-2031, which is far faster than average. The hourly median pay in 2021 was $58.43, amounting to an annual median salary of $121,530.

The pay range is highest in outpatient settings, where PAs earn a median annual salary of $128,430. On the lower end, PAs in educational services make a median annual salary of $101,040. Factors that influence earning potential include geographic location, practice setting, education, and experience.

Frequently Asked Questions about Physician Assistants

What is the fastest-growing area of practice for physician assistants?

The fastest-growing area of practice for physician assistants, according to the NCCPA, is psychiatry, where there was a 57.1% increase in growth from 2016-2020. By comparison, there was a 20.4% decline in physical medicine and rehabilitation in this period.

Is NP or PA school harder?

There is no straightforward answer to this question, as it depends on the candidate. NPs choose a population focus and are educated in the nursing model, while PAs practice general medicine and are educated in the medical model. After certification, they can both treat patients, write prescriptions, and work in a variety of settings. NPs may work autonomously in 27 states, while PAs must always work with a collaborating physician.

Is becoming a PA worth it?

According to the NCCPA, roughly 72% of PAs are completely or mostly satisfied with their present job. PAs also enjoy above-average earnings and a high rate of projected employment growth. These factors can increase the likelihood that an individual would enjoy their career.

Is a physician assistant above a nurse practitioner?

The education and certification requirements for an NP and PA are rigorous. Neither profession is above the other. A PA is educated in the medical model, while an NP is educated in the nursing model. They serve different roles and fill different needs in the healthcare system.

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Page last reviewed January 26, 2023

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