Physician Assistant Career Overview

Updated August 19, 2022 · 5 Min Read

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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Physician Assistant Career Overview
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How Long to Become

7-9 years

Job Outlook

31% projected growth from 2020-2030

Average Annual Salary

$119,460

Source: BLS


A physician assistant (PA) is a licensed professional who works under the supervision of a physician to provide primary medical care to patients. The position was created in the mid-1960s to expand healthcare efforts. The role quickly gained acceptance as a creative solution to a growing physician shortage.

Today, physician assistants are an integral part of healthcare 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 31% from 2020-2030. The NCCPA is the only certifying organization for physician assistants in the United States.

Most PAs are 39 years and under, 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.

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

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 are utilized more frequently in non-teaching smaller hospitals located in rural areas and working with populations that may otherwise be medically underserved. Physician assistants also see a higher number of preventive care visits than for routine chronic conditions.

closeup of nurse hands on computer keyboard

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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 that most physician assistants work in physician's offices. Roughly 26% hold employment in hospitals, and the remaining professionals work in outpatient care centers, nursing homes, educational settings, and the government.

Hospitals

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. Excluding the ER, PAs working in hospitals typically see fewer patients each week than individuals in outpatient settings.

Outpatient Settings

In an outpatient setting, physician assistants provide primary care to patients. They may work in specialty or subspecialty clinics 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. In the federal prison system, they do not interpret diagnostic tests. They may 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 prerequisite college courses and healthcare experience. Admission to PA programs is highly competitive.

Applicants with high GPAs and at least 2,000 hours of healthcare experience often receive preference. Some schools do not require healthcare experience, while others stipulate minimums of 1,000 or 2,000 hours. On average, applicants possess approximately 2,600 patient contact hours.

Most students have completed 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.

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

A student has up to six years and six attempts to pass the examination. If the student does not pass the exam after six tries or the time limit elapses, they can no longer qualify for certification. To take the PANCE again, they must fully complete an accredited program a second time.

After passing the PANCE, the candidate must apply for and receive a state license. The requirements for state licensure vary by state, so candidates must check their state requirements. To maintain your national certification, you must 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
21.9%

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
18.1%

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
12.4%

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 31% from 2020-2030, 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 are educated in the nursing model, while PAs learn 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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