Physician Assistant Career

What is a Physician Assistant?

A physician assistant is a medical professional who has earned nationally-recognized certification and obtained the necessary licensure that is required to practice in his or her state. Authorized to perform a wide variety of healthcare facilities that are usually reserved solely for licensed physicians, a physician assistant operates under the direct supervision of a medical doctor. They primarily concentrate on the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease.

What is a Pediatric Physician Assistant?

A pediatric physician assistant is a healthcare worker with the same state certification and national licensure as a standard physician assistant. However, a pediatric physician assistant concentrated their clinical hours within the specialized discipline of child care known as pediatrics. A pediatric physician assistant is the primary medical professional with whom parents consult on behalf of their children regarding the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of common pediatric illnesses. They are typically the first line of defense in pediatric care.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

A physician assistant performs many of the same medical functions as the very licensed physician under whose supervision they practice. However, these duties vary according to the healthcare setting in which a physician assistant works. For example, in emergency care it is most often a physician assistant who prepares and sets casts for broken bones, stints for other injuries, and stitches or sutures deep tissue cuts and other wounds.

In the setting of a traditional physician’s office, physician assistants are usually the first to diagnose any patient conditions and/or illnesses. They perform basic physical examinations, and if necessary, a physician assistant will order follow-up diagnostic tests including the following but not limited to: blood and urine laboratories, imaging scans such as an MRI or X-ray, medical histories, and biopsies. They are also qualified to examine and interpret the results of any diagnostic tests that they order. Once physician assistants have determined the results of a diagnostic-test, they are then responsible for sharing their findings with the patient and any necessary members of the patient’s family. Physician assistants take the time to educate patients about their condition, any minor and major risks, and the relief of symptoms.

Related: How to Become a Medical Assistant

While physician assistants are licensed and authorized to determine and suggest courses of treatment, they frequently discuss their diagnoses with the medical physician under whom they practice. After collaboration, physician assistants consult with patients regarding available treatment options and a suggested course of action for the future. Finally, physician assistants are licensed to prescribe any and all medications and make referrals to other physicians who are specialized in the appropriate treatment for that patient’s particular condition.

If a patient complains they have been experiencing repeated shortness of breath, difficulty breathing when lying down, and/or a tightening sensation within their chest, a physician assistant will first physically examine the patient by listening to their heart and lungs with a stethoscope. Next, the physician assistant will order a variety of diagnostic tests to help categorically define a cause for the patient’s symptoms. For example, a physician assistant will order a chest X-ray to determine if there is a physical source apart from the heart that could explain the symptoms. If this test does not reveal a conclusive cause, the physician assistant will then order a blood laboratory, the results of which he or she will examine for any chemical indications of heart disease.

Once a proper diagnosis is made, the physician assistant may prescribe any number of medications. In serious cases, however, physician assistants will make a patient referral to a specialized physician known as a cardiologist.

Where Does a Physician Assistant Work?

As physician assistants operate under the direct supervision of medically-licensed doctors, they likewise work in an equally wide and diverse variety of settings. Within hospitals, physician assistants work in the emergency department, surgical care, orthopedics, pediatrics, and any other specialized hospital department one can think of. Physician assistants work at immediate care clinics and in the offices of primary care physicians, too.

Relieving the pain and discomfort of terminal illness, physician assistants also work in hospice and palliative care, the setting of which is usually inside patients’ personal homes. In addition to physical ailments, a physician assistant can also specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. In these cases, they work in the offices of psychiatrists, counselors and therapists, at psychiatric outpatient clinics, and in psychiatric hospitals.

Why Do We Need Physician Assistants?

We need physician assistants for three crucial reasons. First, the profession’s initial purpose was to help alleviate the fact that traditional physicians have become alarmingly scarce. In proportion to the increasing healthcare demands of the overall population, this shortage in doctors has not improved in recent years. Physician assistants help us to meet such a deficit because their education and training is much cheaper and faster than what is required for a conventional physician.

Second, patients see physician assistants for basic medical services, which are not only the most commonly sought-after, but also the cheapest to provide. We need physician assistants because they save patients money by supplying them with the option to reserve costly appointments with a licensed physician solely for serious illnesses and intensive treatments. Finally, we need physician assistants because they provide important relief to licensed physicians, who, in addition to meeting high volumes of patient needs, must also meet the demands of their administrative obligations.

What are the Requirements to Become a Physician Assistant?

In order to become a physician assistant, there are a number of educational and licensure requirements that must be fulfilled. First, a physician assistant must have earned a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree. While it is recommended that they graduate with a BS in medical terminology or healthcare ethics, physician assistant candidates can hold a BA or BS in any field of study. However, most master’s programs for physician assistants require students to have already completed the following undergraduate courses: microbiology, biology, anatomy, chemistry, and physiology.

Next, physician assistants must earn a master’s level degree that is recognized by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. The first year of this program is dedicated to healthcare basics in which students take a number of courses in biology, organic chemistry, anatomy, pathology, surgical techniques, diagnosis, and pharmacology. During the student’s final year/s of the program (lengths vary from two to three years) they will choose a specific healthcare discipline in which they ultimately plan to clinically and professionally concentrate. Such concentrations include but are not limited to: gynecology, pediatrics, surgery, dermatology, neurology, and emergency medicine.

In addition to earning a master’s degree, physician assistant candidates must fulfill over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations; i.e., on-site training which usually takes several months to complete. Upon this completion, candidates must then pay $475 to take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. They can take the exam again after 90 days if they do not pass on their first attempt. However, they are only permitted to take the exam three times within a 365-day period, and they must pay the $475 fee each and every attempt.

Finally, physician assistant candidates must apply for the licensure to practice within their given state. While specific requirements vary from state to state, most require that candidates submit their educational transcripts, proof for the completion of clinical hours, and pay a licensure fee with a money order or check.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Physician Assistant?

Depending upon the specific state in which a physician assistant will practice and the program from which they receive their education, it takes seven to eight years total to become a licensed physician assistant.

First, candidates must earn their bachelor’s degree, which usually takes three to four years. Second, they must earn a master’s level degree. Most programs take three years to complete, but there are some that take as little as two. Next, candidates must pass the physician assistant’s national exam, and depending on whether they pass the first, second, or third time, this can take anywhere from two to twelve months. Finally, physician assistants must apply for licensure to practice within their given state—the approval process of which can take anywhere from two to ten weeks.

What Skills are Required for a Physician Assistant?

  • Scientific problem-solving and critical thinking – A physician assistant must possess critical thinking skills in order to assess a wide range of physical ailments and patient conditions. Furthermore, in order to make accurate diagnoses and prescribe appropriate treatment, they must also be able to problem-solve scientifically, too.
  • Hard-working – It takes seven to eight years of education, practice, and training to become a licensed physician assistant, but the hard work does not stop there. Physician assistants often work stressful, 12-hour-long shifts at a time. In fact, a 50 to 60-hour work week is not unusual either.
  • Tact– For most patients, healthcare workers often exemplify everything that is a trustworthy confidant. A physician assistant must never act in such a way that would cause a patient to question his or her reliability or competency. Additionally, as patients often share deeply personal and private information with physician assistants, they must be skilled at responding respectfully, professionally, and with as much tact as possible.
  • Time-management – On any given day, a physician assistant will see and treat anywhere from 10 to an upwards of 50 patients. This requires that physician assistants be expertly skilled at prioritizing needs and managing the time they spend with each individual patient.
  • Negotiation – A physician assistant must prescribe medications and recommend courses of treatment to their patients. However, it is not uncommon for some patients to not only express their dissatisfaction and frustration, but they may even outright refuse treatment prescriptions. Physician assistants must possess profound negotiation skills in order to convince patients that adhering to their proposed treatment is strictly in their best interest.
  • Independence – Although physician assistants work under the supervision of a licensed physician, for the most part they must work, diagnose, and prescribe treatments independently on their own.
  • Emotional stability – It is not uncommon that a physician assistant must deliver disappointing and sometimes devastating news to patients and their families. Such responsibility can take a toll on even the most mentally-healthy and emotionally-strong people. Physician assistants must possess the necessary skills to manage their emotions and remain objective as possible at all times.

What Do You Learn in a Physician Assistant Degree Program?

  • Healthcare systems – Physician assistants must possess a profound understanding of the United States’ healthcare system. Degree curriculums teach students the ins and outs of both privately purchased health insurance and government allocated programs such as Medicare. Students also learn the various types of federal programs that provide monetary and legal support to practicing physician assistants.
  • Ethics and code of conduct – As physician assistants work one-on-one with not only individual patients but must also with their patients’ family members, it is crucial that they learn how to create and foster these relationships within the setting of their medical practice. However, this becomes a tricky endeavor as physician assistants must achieve a delicate balance between providing objective professionalism and intimate compassion.
  • Disease – Physician assistant degree programs ensure students gain advanced and extensive comprehension of disease. Students learn about the symptoms and causes for the world’s most common and rarest diseases.
  • Methods of diagnosis and treatment – As they are typically the medical professional whom patients initially see when first experiencing symptoms, physician assistant degree programs focus intensely on the diagnoses of diseases. Students learn about symptoms as they are typically described by patients, and they also learn to identify symptoms of which patients may not even be necessarily aware. Students also learn about misleading symptoms, conflicting symptoms, and which diseases usually manifest concurrently in order to expedite diagnoses. Once a disease has been accurately diagnosed, physician assistant students learn how to effectively treat the condition according to the unique needs of each particular patient.
  • Pharmacology basics – In a physician assistant program, students learn the fundamentals of pharmacology such drug guidelines and general safety. They are also taught advanced pharmacotherapy principles such as how to personalize medications for patients by building one drug on top of the components of another and avoiding dangerous drug interactions.

What is an Online Physician Assistant Program?

Physician assistants who are already licensed and practicing can pursue further education through an online physician assistant program. If a physician assistant wanted to earn an advanced degree within their discipline prior to the development and launch of such online education they had to put their practice on hold in order to attend on-site lectures and take exams. Currently, however, online physician assistant programs permit students to obtain advanced degrees while remaining in professional practice. Allowing physician assistants to take courses in the comfort of their own homes, online physician assistant programs offer students scheduling flexibility. They can pursue further education as it is convenient for them during their own free time, which usually takes place on weekends or at other odd hours of the day when the doors of a traditional on-site program are closed.

How Much Does a Physician Assistant Make?

As of May 2016, the average salary for a physician assistant was $101,480 a year at an hourly rate of $48.79. Taking home $112, 270 in 2016, the highest paid physician assistants worked in employment services. Lowest paid physician assistants of 2016 were employed with state, local, and private educational facilities earning a salary of $97,470.

What is the Job Outlook for Physician Assistants?

The job outlook for physician assistants is estimated to increase 37 percent by 2026. This is partly due to the fact that the substantially populated generation of the Baby Boomers is approaching their elder years and will require more of the medical care that is appropriate for older age. Rises in job outlook for physician assistants are also due to a rise in obesity across the overall population and the chronic conditions that are associated with obesity such as arthritis, heart disease, various types of cancer, and type I and II diabetes.

What Professions Are Similar to a Physician Assistant?

Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner is the profession that is most similar to that of a physician assistant in regards to levels of education and training, roles and responsibilities, the types of medical care they are licensed to provide, the salary that they earn, and the fact that both professionals practice under the supervision of a licensed physician. The slight differences between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant lie in the methodology and manner in which they base the medical care they provide. For example, nurse practitioners center their processes around every aspect of a patient’s needs; i.e., emotional and psychological needs as well as the physical. Physician assistants center their processes almost entirely around a patient’s medical needs by focusing on anatomy, disease pathology, and treatment.


A fully licensed physician is similar to a physician assistant in that they both perform many of the same types of basic medical care. However, physician assistants practice under the supervision of doctors due to their disproportioned levels of training and education. At most, no more than eight years are required to obtain physician assistant licensure, but a minimum of nine years is required for doctors to practice fully and independently, and for many specializations it can take up to thirteen years. In regards to income, an average doctor can earn anywhere from twice to three times the salary of a physician assistant, and doctors who practice in highly specialized disciplines can earn nearly nine times more.

Registered Nurse

Registered nurses are similar to physician assistants in that they work one-on-one with patients in a wide variety of healthcare settings under the direct supervision of licensed physicians. However, there are vast differences between educational requirements, the roles and responsibilities each professional fulfills, and the types of medical care they are licensed to provide. Registered nurses can choose between two educational courses, one in which only requires two years to earn licensure (an Associate’s degree in nursing), and another that requires four years (a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing). In regards to daily roles and medical care, registered nurses do not make diagnoses and are not qualified to write prescriptions or recommend any other form of treatment.

Physical Therapy Assistant

A physical therapy assistant is similar to a physician assistant in that both professionals work in a vast array of healthcare environments and always under doctor supervision. Physical therapy assistants are only required to earn a two-year associate’s degree. They are strictly limited in regards to the type of care they are authorized to provide. Physical therapy assistants usually provide no more than deep-muscular massages and hands-on guidance to patients as they exercise and work to regain loss mobility after an injury. They work under the supervision of a physical therapist.

Related Reading

Further Reading

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