Physician Assistants Overview

Before applying to physician assistant training programs, many applicants have a college degree as well as some health-related work experience. In order to obtain a license, a physician assistant is required to complete an accredited education program and successfully complete a national exam. Job opportunities are expected to be good and employment is projected to grow much faster than average.

Nature of the Work for Physician Assistants

Physician Assistants

Under the supervision of a physician or surgeon, a physician assistant (PA) will practice medicine. This is different from a medical assistant, who primarily performs routine clerical and clinical tasks. They are trained to provide therapeutic, diagnostic and preventative healthcare services. Physician assistants work in collaboration with teams to examine and treat patients, take medical histories and make diagnoses. In addition, physician assistants treat minor injuries by splinting, casting and suturing. They are responsible for instructing and counseling patients, recording progress notes and order or carry out therapy. In some cases, a PA takes on managerial tasks including, supervising medical technicians and assistants and ordering medical supplies.

Though physician assistant works under the direction of a physician, they may be the principal care provider in rural and inner-city clinics where the physician is only in the office for 1 or 2 days per week. In these cases, the PA consults with the supervising physician as needed and as required by law. In addition, they may go to hospitals and nursing care facilities or make house calls to check on patients for the physician.

The supervising physician and State law determine the duties of physician assistants. It is important for aspiring physician assistants to investigate the laws and regulations in the States in which they desire to practice.

The majority of PAs work in primary care specialties, including pediatrics, general internal medicine and family medicine. Other areas of specialty include emergency medicine, geriatrics, orthopedics and general and thoracic surgery. Those who specialize in surgery deliver preoperative and postoperative care and sometimes work as first or second assistants during major surgery.

Physician assistants generally work in comfortable environments, though those in surgery may stand for long periods. Their schedules usually vary according to the hours of the supervising physician. Physician assistants who work in a hospital typically include early morning, nights and weekend hospital rounds to visit patients; the may also be on call. In a clinic, physician assistants usually work a regular 40-hour workweek.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Physician Assistants

It takes a full-time student about two years to complete a physician assistant educational program. Programs are typically found at academic health centers, medical schools, 4-year colleges or at schools of allied health.

The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant currently has 142 education programs for physician assistants. The majority, or 113, of these programs grant a masters degree, while 21 of them offer a bachelors degree, 3 awarded degrees and 5 awarded a certificate.

Admissions requirements for physician assistant educational programs vary depending on the program, however most applicants already have a college degree and some health-related work experience as a emergency medical technician, paramedic or registered nurse.

Education programs for physician assistants combine laboratory and classroom instruction on subjects such as human anatomy, clinical pharmacology, physical diagnosis, clinical medicine, medical ethics and pathology. A supervised clinical training is also required in PA programs. A physician assistant student may rotate between departments during their training, which could lead permanent employment in the future.

Each State has legislation governing the practice of physician assistants that require tem to pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, provided by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). It is open only to graduates of accredited PA education programs. Physician assistants must complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years in order to maintain their certification.

Physician assistants must be compassionate and have a passion for serving patients. They also must be self-motivated, have emotional stability, good bedside manners and the ability to make decisions in emergencies. Because their eligibility to practice depends on continuing education, they should have an enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

In order to advance in this career, some PAs seek additional education in a specialty, such as rural primary care, internal medicine, emergency medicine, neonatology, pediatrics and occupational medicine. In order to be certified by the NCCPA, candidates must be graduates of an accredited program.

Physician assistants can earn new responsibilities and higher wages as they attain greater clinical knowledge and experience. But, they will always be under the supervision by physicians.

Top 10 Most Popular Physician Assistant Schools

1. Touro College, New York (New York, New York)
2. Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
3. A.T.Still University - School of Health Management, Kirksville (Kirksville, Missouri)
4. Western University of Health Sciences (Pomona, California)
5. Saint Francis University, Loretto (Loretto, Pennsylvania)
6. East Carolina University (Greenville, North Carolina)
7. Drexel University (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
8. Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (North Chicago, Illinois)
9. Midwestern University, Downers Grove (Downers Grove, Illinois)
10. University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)

See All Physician Assistant Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Physician Assistants

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow much faster than average (increase 20% or more).

Physician assistants hold about 74,800 jobs. Because many PAs work more than two jobs, the number of jobs is greater than the number of practicing PAs.

More than half, or 53 percent, of jobs for physician assistants are in the offices of physicians. General medical and surgical hospitals hold about 24 percent and the rest are employed in the Federal Government, health maintenance organizations and public or private colleges, universities and professional schools.

Physician assistant employment is expected to grow by 39 percent in the next decade, which is much faster than average for all occupations. The expansion of healthcare industries and an emphasis on cost containment will result in an increased use of PAs by healthcare establishments.

Physician assistants are being hired by physicians and institutions to assist with medical and surgical procedures because PAs are cost effective and productive members of the healthcare team. They are especially valuable because they can relieve physicians of routine duties and procedures. As States continue to expand physician assistant’s scope of practice by allowing them to perform more procedures, healthcare providers will use more physician assistants.

Job prospects should be especially good for physician assistants, especially in rural and inner-city clinics because those settings have difficulty attracting physicians. Employment growth and the need to replace physicians who retire or leave the occupation permanently will create job openings. States that allow PAs a wider scope of practice will see the best job opportunities.

Earnings and Salary for Physician Assistants

The median annual wage of physician assistants is $84,420. The highest 10 percent earn more than $115,080, while the lowest 10 percent earn less than $55,880. The middle 50 percent of physician assistants earn between $71,160 and $99,540. The median annual wages in the top industries for physicians assistants are:

General medical and surgical hospitals: $84,550
Outpatient care centers: $84,390
Offices of physicians: $80,440
Federal Executive Branch: $78,200
Colleges, universities, and professional schools: $74,200

Income varies by specialty, practice setting, geographical location, and years of experience. Employers often pay for their employees' professional liability insurance, registration fees with the Drug Enforcement Administration, State licensing fees, and credentialing fees.

Annual Salary for Physician Assistants

On average, Physician Assistants earn $84,420 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $55,880/yr $71,160/yr $99,540/yr $115,080/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook