Published 01/31/14

Physician Assistant 101: A Guide to One of America’s Top Jobs

Physician assistants, or PAs, are a fast-growing group of medical professionals who diagnose, treat, and prevent illness as part of a health care team. Under the supervision of a doctor, physician assistants practice medicine. They can:

  • Take medical histories
  • Perform physical exams
  • Prescribe medications
  • Diagnose and treat acute and chronic illness
  • Counsel patients about disease prevention
  • Perform minor surgical procedures
  • Assist with major surgeries
  • Order and interpret lab tests
  • Make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes

The profession sprung up in the 1960s as a response to a shortage of primary care doctors. Since then, the profession has grown rapidly because PAs expand and improve primary care – a key way to keep people healthy and prevent illness.

Today – 46 years after the first-ever PA class graduated from Duke University – an estimated 93,000 certified PAs practice in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

To practice, a PA must graduate from an accredited educational program. PA master’s degree programs take an average of 27 months to complete – the length of Bryant’s program. Programs are modeled on the medical school curriculum, a combination of classroom education and more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations.

PAs add value to health care in a variety of ways. Because of their broad training, they’re flexible and can work in many settings. Because they extend the medical care that doctors give, they make care more accessible. They are uniquely qualified to offer preventive care and to care for the underserved. And they can be quickly trained, helping to offset doctor shortages, and are paid less than doctors, helping to make care more affordable.

For these reasons, PAs are critical to health care reform. And their ranks are growing – fast. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, the PA profession has nearly doubled in 10 years. And it continues to expand. According to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, more than 7,000 PAs graduate annually from U.S. programs.

PAs are not only in demand. They’re happy. PA consistently ranks high in job pay and satisfaction surveys, landing on the 2013 “Best Jobs in America” list by CNN/ Money , as well an annual rankings compiled by Forbes and US News & World Report.

PAs at a Glance

  • Median age:  38
  • 61 percent are women
  • Average annual salary:  $90,000
  • Median years in clinical  practice:  7
  • 9.1 percent  employed by the government
  • 39.4 percent work  in hospital  settings
  • 29.2  percent work in physician group  practices

Source: American Academy of Physician Assistants