About the Physician Assistant

WHAT IS A PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT?

A physician assistant (PA) is a mid-level practitioner who acts as an extension of the physician in making diagnoses and treating patients on a basic level, so that the physician has more time to take care of the more seriously ill patients. The choice to pursue a PA career depends on what level of responsibility a person wants and what kind of interaction he or she wants with a patient. The PA and physician practice together together as a team based on mutual respect. PAs represent the physician by treating patients in the manner directed by the supervising physician.

WHAT AREAS OF MEDICINE CAN PHYSICIAN ASSISTANTS WORK IN?

PAs practice in the areas of primary care medicine -- family medicine,internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology -- as well as in surgery and the surgical subspecialties.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A PA AND A PHYSICIAN?

One of the main differences between PA education and physician education is the amount of time spent in formal education. In addition to time in school, physicians are required to do an internship, and the majority also complete a residency in a specialty following that. PAs do not have to undertake an internship or residency.

A physician has complete responsibility for the care of the patient. PAs share that responsibility with the supervising physicians.

HOW DID THE PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT PROFESSION BEGIN?

In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage and uneven distribution of primary care physicians. To expand the delivery of quality medical care, Dr. Eugene Stead of the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He selected Navy corpsmen who received considerable medical training during their military service and in Vietnam but who had no comparable civilian employment. He based the curriculum of the PA program in part on his knowledge of the fast-track training of doctors during World War II.

ABOUT THE PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT CAREER
  • 9.1% are employed by a government agency
  • Mean hours worked by full time PAs: 40.0
  • Most common practice settings:
    • 39% - single-specialty group practice
    • 11% - solo physician practice office
    • 11% - inpatient unit of a hospital (not ICU/CCU)
    • 10% - hospital ER
    • 9% - multi-specialty physician group practice
    • 8% - outpatient unit of hospital
       
  • Areas of specialty:
    • Primary care - 31%
    • Surgical subspecialities - 23%
    • Other specialties - 19%
    • Emergency medicine - 11%
    • Internal medicine subspecialities - 10%
    • General surgery - 3%
    • Pediatric subspecialties - 1%
       
  • The median salary for a full-time PA is $90,000
    • Emergency medicine - $101,000
    • Surgical subspecialities - $97,000
    • General surgery - $92,000
    • Pediatric subspecialties - $88,000
    • Internal medicine subspecialties - $87,200
    • Primary care - $85,000

Information taken from the 2010 American Academy of Physician Assistants Census.

WHAT IS THE JOB OUTLOOK FOR PHYSICIAN ASSISTANTS?

Employment of physician assistants is expected to grow by 39 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Projected rapid job growth reflects the expansion of healthcare industries and an emphasis on cost containment, which results in increasing use of PAs by healthcare establishments.

Physicians and institutions are expected to employ more PAs to provide primary care and to assist with medical and surgical procedures because PAs are cost-effective and productive members of the healthcare team. Physician assistants can relieve physicians of routine duties and procedures. Healthcare providers will use more physician assistants as States continue to expand PAs' scope of practice by allowing them to perform more procedures.

Besides working in traditional office-based settings, PAs should find a growing number of jobs in institutional settings such as hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics, and prisons. Job prospects: Job opportunities for PAs should be good, particularly in rural and inner-city clinics because those settings have difficulty attracting physicians. Job openings will result both from employment growth and from the need to replace physician assistants who retire or leave the occupation permanently. Opportunities will be best in States that allow PAs a wider scope of practice. For more information about the physician assistant career, visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site.

WEB SITES TO CHECK OUT

American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA)
National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)
Student Academy of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (SAAAPA) 

updated 1/10/12