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This Is How To Become a Physician Assistant
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Taylor Tobin
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If you’re lucky enough to possess both a keen scientific mind and a deep desire to help others, a career in healthcare could be a perfect fit for you. The arduous (and expensive) path required to obtain a doctor’s medical degree (specifically an MD) is well-documented in career guides provided by academic advisors, and perhaps even more so through pop-culture references (i.e. the centuries-long residencies performed by the “Grey’s Anatomy” team). Four years of undergraduate work, four years of training in medical school, and three to seven years of residency work before earning your license...it’s exhausting, and experts estimate that the average medical student will graduate with $166,750 in debt. 

However, if you’d like to take an active professional role in promoting the health and wellbeing of others with the benefits of a flexible schedule and fewer years of schooling, working as a physician assistant can offer the best of both worlds. Physician assistants (also known as “PAs”) frequently have the ability to perform examinations, aid with complex surgical procedures, and even to prescribe medications to patients. Also, because physician assistants are consistently in high demand in the job market across the country, relocation and advancement possibilities aren’t limited by typical restrictions. 

Think you might be interested in this challenging and rewarding career path with enormous growth potential? Here’s everything you need to know about pursuing a position as a physician assistant.

What education do you need to become a physician assistant, and how much does it cost?

With very few exceptions (often bestowed upon long-time employees “grandfathered” into more senior healthcare roles), physician assistants are expected to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree from an accredited university. Additionally, The American Academy of PAs (the USA’s professional society for physician assistants) highly recommends that PA candidates line up at least three years of professional experience in healthcare before applying for a PA program culminating in certification. 

What should you major in?

Technically, PAs can hold a bachelor’s degree in any subject, as long as they participate in a PA training program after graduation. However, a major in a healthcare-related scientific field can give prospective PAs a useful leg-up before beginning their job-specific training, as they’ll already have a large percentage of their PA-program prerequisites completed. Strong concentration choices may include Chemistry, Psychology, Biology, or Sports Physiology.

How long does schooling take?

After earning a four-year bachelor’s degree, PAs are expected to attend a master’s program in the field. Split between classroom hours and clinical rotations, these programs typically take 3 years to complete. The median amount of student debt that a PA will shoulder clocks in at $112,500 per year, and while that’s no small amount, it’s significantly lower than the debt burden carried by the average MD in America.

In addition to formal education, PAs must gain command of numerous soft skills that prove invaluable to their workplace performance. These skills include the ability to actively listen to patients, to effectively explain procedures and medical options, and a capacity for sharp, in-the-moment problem-solving.

How do you become licensed as a physician assistant?

At the end of your master’s program in physician assisting, it’s time to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (the PANCE). After attaining the certification, you’ll need to become licensed in your state, and licensing requirements vary depending on your location (specifics can be found here). 

Also, it’s important to remember that Physician Assistant-Certified designations (PA-Cs) must be maintained, so you’ll need to enroll for and finish 100 hours of continuing medical education every 2 years and must take a license recertification exam every 10 years.

What salary can a physician assistant expect?

Physician assistants must shoulder an enormous amount of responsibility. Because they work directly with physicians and often take on tasks typically associated with doctors (like creating medication plans and writing prescriptions), PAs require intense training and frequently interact directly with patients, necessitating a solid bedside manner. Luckily, PAs are handsomely compensated for their crucial skills. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, in 2017, PAs nationwide earned a median salary of $104,860 per year. 

A day in the life of a PA

In spite of their high-stakes job responsibilities, PAs frequently work schedules far more consistent than those of their MD colleagues. Doctors must accept on-call shifts and field job-related communications at all hours, while PAs can (usually) work regularly-scheduled shifts without expecting much overflow into their personal time. 

Physician assistants frequently find themselves confused for medical assistants, who also assist MDs in hospital and office settings. However, medical assistants require no formal certification or career-specific training, and they therefore can’t provide primary care services directly, while PAs do have that ability. As a result, medical assistants typically earn significantly less than PAs; PayScale estimates the average hourly rate for a medical assistant in the U.S. as $14.50.

Like doctors, PAs often elect to practice certain types and aspects of medicine. For example, a PA can specialize in surgery, family medicine, or obstetrics, among many other medical disciplines. The workload and requirements vary based on specialization and seniority, but in a general sense, PAs can expect to perform the following tasks:

  • Performing physical examinations on patients

  • Diagnosing illnesses and conditions and prescribing medication or designing treatment plans

  • Assisting the MD with involved procedures like surgery

  • Following up with patients to evaluate their progress and recommend further courses of treatment if necessary

While PAs do work under the supervision of MDs, the doctor isn’t required to be on premises when the PA performs examinations or meets with patients. Therefore, PAs enjoy significant autonomy, well-earned by their impressive educational credentials and first-hand experience working with patients and actively participating in a vast range of healthcare procedures.

PAs also have the ability to switch their concentrations; if a physician assistant begins her career in obstetrics, she can still transition into geriatrics without needing any additional schooling. The flexibility also extends to location- while a PA will need to become certified in a new state should she decide to move, the high demand for these roles nationwide will strongly position her for job-searching in her new locale once she’s licensed.  

In terms of growth, PAs have numerous possibilities to consider. Salaries for PAs continue to grow with experience and a track record of excellent work, and if a PA chooses to remain in that role while gaining on-the-job knowledge and seniority, she'll be rewarded with competitive compensation and job security. High-achieving PAs can also position themselves for consideration as hospital administrators or directors. 

How much demand is there for PAs?

Physician assistants benefit from a regular, sustained, and — if anything — increasing need for their services throughout the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the physician-assisting field will grow in demand a full 37% from 2016 to 2026, which, the BLS reports, is “much faster than the average for all occupations”. As today’s population continues to age and find themselves needing more regular medical attention, the importance of highly-skilled professionals to help doctors perform these essential health-related tasks will exponentially rise. Therefore, if you’re seeking a solid employment track for the long haul, complete with the capacity to genuinely help the progress of your patients, working as a physician assistant can prove the ideal solution.

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