With a possible shortage of trained doctors in the U.S. in the foreseeable future along with the anticipated expansion of healthcare needs, students are taking a closer look at ways to fill the void in the healthcare industry. Many wish to pursue a career in medicine without having to spend upwards of seven or more years in education and training. Becoming a physician assistant (PA) can allow a person to do many of the same things a doctor does and get a degree and skills in less time.
As the title suggests, physician assistants work with a medical team that supports the doctor. In order to perform their duties which are at times similar to those of a doctor, PAs are required to have a broad range of skills in dealing with patients. Their duties are diverse and include among others examining patients, ordering diagnostic tests, prescribing medications, assisting with surgeries, and working with their team to provide comprehensive evaluations and recommendations for treatment.
PAs normally work under the direction of a physician, but in rural or some inner city clinics, they may serve as the principal care provider where the doctor is only available a few days per week. In these cases, they communicate with the doctor as required by law. PAs may also go to nursing facilities to check on patients, or they may work in specialties such as emergency medicine, orthopedics, general or thoracic surgery, family medicine, gynecology, urology, and geriatrics.
Training to become a physician assistant varies by state. Many programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree and several years of healthcare-related work experience such as nursing as admission requirements. All states require that PAs complete an accredited formal education program. Once the classroom requirements are met, the PA student will do clinical rotations that can last several months. After graduation students become certified and obtain a license which permits them to work. Each state has its own requirements, but most accredited programs last between 24 and 36 months. Many of the programs for PAs lead to a master’s degree, depending upon what the student wishes to accomplish.
Job flexibility as a PA allows a physician assistant when certified to change from one specialty to another without additional training. If a physician or surgeon changes specialties they are often required to take additional training which may take up to several years to accomplish. Doctors have the opportunity to work independently, whereas the PAs work in relationship with a doctor and medical team. The PAs however are seldom required to work on-call, and most of them leave their work at the medical facility when they go home at night.
Decent pay rewards for the physician assistant—the median pay for physician assistants in 2012 was approximately $91,000 per year or just under $45 per hour. Income will vary depending on specialty, location of employment, and years of experience. With the job outlook for the years between 2012 and 2022, the predicted growth rate for physician assistants will be 38 percent. The expected growth rate for physicians and surgeons will be 18 percent for the same time period.
What would the course work involve to become a PA? In the classroom, the courses cover human anatomy, pathophysiology, pharmacology, clinical medicine, research, physical exam skills, and professional medicine issues. They are involved in technical practice skills such as case studies, simulated patient situations, and technical skills such as casting, suturing, and phlebotomy. Their clinical rotations involve many different areas of medicine with clinical instructors that include physicians, physician assistants, and other healthcare providers.
After completing the coursework in an accredited program, students must pass the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam) and apply for a PA license. Once they are working, they must maintain their license on an annual basis with continuing education credits, as required by the state in which they work.