Physician assistants (PAs) are people who practice medicine under the supervision of a licensed doctor. In many ways, they are similar to doctors. They have many of the same responsibilities, and perform many of the same tasks. However, a PA does not need the same level of education. In many offices, patients sometimes even prefer to see the PA instead of the doctor.
It is important not to confuse physician assistants with medical assistants (MAs). MAs do not have the same level of responsibility or education. MAs see patients before the doctor or PA, and they perform various clerical and administrative tasks. A physician assistant does not perform any clerical work.
Physician assistants have a key role in a doctor’s office. They may work under the supervision of a licensed physician. However, supervising physicians do not always play a large role with a PA’s work.
Some common tasks one performs as a physician assistant include diagnosing and deciding treatment for patients, analyzing and interpreting x-rays and lab results, writing prescriptions, taking patients’ histories, providing surgical assistance, ordering various forms of therapy, and examining patients.
It is difficult to know the specifics of what daily responsibilities will be performed by PAs because state laws and supervising physicians dictate exactly what tasks a physician’s assistant can perform. To get a general idea, one could check the laws for a few different states.
Training and Education Requirements
While it is not necessary, most people who apply to physician assistant training programs already have a bachelor’s degree. In addition, many also have experience in a medical field, such as military medics, emergency medical technicians, and registered nurses. Also, prerequisites vary depending on the school, and should be checked before applying.
Physician assistant programs usually take about two years to finish, and they can lead to an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s degree. It simply depends on each person’s prior education.
Common courses one takes in this training program include immunology, nutrition, biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, clinical medicine, pathology, and various other health and medical related courses.
It is important to attend an accredited training program. Many community colleges and four-year universities offer accredited courses. In addition, the majority of the programs are offered by allied health schools, medical schools, and health centers.
Salary and Wages
Physician assistants are paid well. In May 2008, the median annual salary of a PA was $81,230, and first-year graduates generally earned about $5,000 less than that. The highest-paid PAs earned over $100,000 and the lowest-paid PAs earned around $50,000, which is a decent paycheck considering how poorly some jobs in the medical field pay. PAs that work in medical offices are the most common, and they earn about $75,000 a year. Employment is also expected to grow through 2016 for this career choice, which will mean PAs can potentially earn even more money in the future.*
*According to the BLS, http://www.bls.gov/oco/
In addition, most employers offer physician assistants excellent benefits, which include insurance and various fees that may be needed as a PA.
Physician assistants must be nationally certified and hold state licenses. State requirements will vary, but nearly all PAs must be nationally certified before being considered for a state license.
All PAs need to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, which is given by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). This exam is only available to people who attended an accredited school, which is why it is so important to take an accredited program. Those who pass the exam are allowed to use the credential, “Physician Assistant-Certified.” To maintain this credential, PAs need to complete 100 hours of medical education every two years, and they must be re-certified every six years.
State certification varies, but all states require physician assistants be supervised by a doctors. However, the supervising physician does not necessarily need to be on site, and supervisors can work with PAs through periodic visits and phone communication.
There are two major professional associations for physician assistants: the NCCPA and the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA).
The NCCPA is a not-for-profit organization established in 1975. It is the only organization in the United States that offers national certification for physician assistants. They ensure that physician assistants meet a necessary skill level and education. They do this to assure the public that all credentialed PAs are held to a certain standard.
The AAPA was founded in 1968 to represent the PA profession. It represents PAs of all specialties in the entire United States, the military, federal services, and Guam. The AAPA provides support to PAs so they can provide better, higher-quality health care to patients. Members of the AAPA are primarily working PAs who graduated from an accredited PA training program. There are other membership choices for people who want to support the profession as well. The other memberships are offered to retired PAs, students, physicians, and various other health-related professions.