A physician assistant career is a common second career for many people who have been working in the field of health care for years, but desire more responsibilities and more direct interaction with patients. A physician assistant (PA) shouldn’t be confused with the job of medical assistant, which refers to lower- level employees in a doctor’s office or clinic who assist with basic tasks. On the contrary, a physician assistant functions as sort of a quasi-doctor, performing many of the same functions as ann actual medical doctor. While most physician assistant’s are people who have long prior experience in health care, such as nurses, there are also programs that lead directly to a physician assistant career, although the education will take longer. There is a critical shortage of doctors in the U.S. and the shortage is getting worse; PAs help fill this void in the field of health care.
A physician assistant practices medicine for a living, but they do so while under the supervision of a licensed medical doctor, or in some cases, a surgeon. Just as doctors do, they diagnose and treat common illnesses and injuries, educate patients about preventive medicine, sometimes prescribe drugs, give x-rays, take patients’ medical histories, and recommend and read lab tests. In other words, most of their day is taken up performing the functions that take up most of a medical doctor’s day. PAs often work in a doctor’s office or a medical clinic shared by several doctors. By performing the more common and routine medical tasks, they free up the physician or physicians to concentrate on more difficult cases, which require more experience or specialized knowledge to handle.
Not everyone in a physician assistant career works under the direct and constant supervision of a medical doctor, especially in areas where there is a critical shortage of doctors.. In some cases, depending on state requirements, the medical doctor may only be present once a week or so. During this time, the doctor and the PA will review cases, and the MD will offer advice, as well as corrective criticism when necessary. Because MDs are ultimately responsible for the medical care a PA provides, they must be very rigorous about seeing to it that the PA’s work measures up. Some PAs specialize in surgery, working under the supervision of a surgeon during surgery, as well as caring for the patient before and after the procedure. Most PAs, however, work in general medicine, usually in some sort of family practice setting.
As stated earlier, most PAs are people who have worked for years in health care, and already have a college degree, such as EMTs and nurses. In these cases, the educational path to a physician assistant career is usually much shorter than for people with no college degree. For people in this situation, it will be necessary to go back to college for two years in a recognized physician assistant program. Part of this education will involve working with patients in clinics and doctor’s offices. For those without a college degree, or a health- care background, it may be possible to get accepted into one of these programs, but it’s out of the ordinary. Normally a person will be advised to earn a college degree in some sort of health-care major and then re-apply. After graduation, the prospective PA must be licensed in the state where he or she wants to work. This will require passing the extremely challenging certification test known as PANCE, which stands for Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam.
As one would expect, salaries in a physician assistant career are very good. While there will be a lot of variance based on geography, experience, work setting, etc., in general PA salaries are in the upper echelons of all salaries in the U.S. The median PA salary is approximately $85,000 a year, with most PAs earning somewhere between $65,000 and $100,000 annually. Because of the critical doctor shortage, salaries are expected to keep rising indefinitely and job prospects are excellent. Government projections indicate there won’t be nearly enough qualified PAs to meet demand for the foreseeable future.