How to Become a Physician Assistant in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for physician assistants. Get the facts about job duties, education requirements, licensing and employment outlook to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

A physician assistant (PA) practices medicine under the guidance of a licensed physician. They can diagnose and treat illnesses, as well as prescribe medicine. Their daily responsibilities may include reviewing medical histories, examining patients, ordering medical tests, providing treatment and educating patients and their families on the patient's condition. Physician assistants also stay up to date on current research in the field to provide quality patient care, and may participate in outreach groups. In rural communities, a physician assistant may, through consultation with a physician, have the role of primary care provider. Take a look at the following chart for an overview of how to enter this field.

Degree/Experience Required Bachelor's degree, healthcare-related work experience, master's degree
Education Field of Study Bachelor's: nursing, medical assistant; master's: physician assistant
Key Skills Examine patients, document medical history, provide diagnosis & treatment, prescribe medication
Licensure Required License & certification required in all states
Job Growth (2014-2024 ) 30%*
Average Salary (2015) $99,270*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

As a physician assistant, you will provide an array of healthcare services as assigned by your supervising physicians. You may record patient medical histories, perform examinations to ascertain patients' physical condition, provide wound care, diagnose illnesses and order laboratory tests and x-rays. In addition, you may give immunizations and injections and provide assistance during surgeries. You may also perform specialty procedures utilizing advanced technologies. Other duties may include ordering medical supplies and, with the approval of a licensed physician, prescribing medications or therapies.

Step 1: Obtain Initial Training and Experience

Many physician assistant programs will require that you possess some experience in the healthcare field and in providing direct care to patients. The required amount of patient-care hours can range from 300 to 3,000. You can begin your career by first working as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), or an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Since there are also some physician assistant programs which accept applicants who have non-paid healthcare experience, you might consider performing hands-on volunteer work and job shadowing in hospices, nursing homes or medical clinics.

Most PA programs require the completion of a bachelor's degree. You may earn a degree in a medical-related field, such as nursing or medical assisting.

Step 2: Enroll in an Accredited Physician's Assistant Program

You need to complete a physician assistant's master's degree program. These programs can last between 26 and 27 months. The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) reports that curricula can include coursework in behavior, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and microbiology. Other courses might include pulmonary medicine, ophthalmology, dermatology, pathology, and clinical decision-making.

Step 3: Meet State Licensing Requirements

All states require you to successfully pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) and obtain the Physician Assistant-Certified credential, which is granted by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Your examination will consist of a series of multiple-choice questions, which will test your knowledge of various surgical and medical procedures.

Step 4: Find Employment as a PA

Physician assistants are employed in virtually every area of medicine, including orthopedics, pediatrics, emergency medicine, geriatrics, gynecology, family medicine and internal medicine. You may find work in hospitals, clinics, prisons and outpatient centers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were about 98,470 physician assistants working in the U.S. in May 2015 (www.bls.gov). Of those, about 58% worked in physician offices and 22% in medical and surgical hospitals. In addition, the BLS expects physician assistant jobs to grow by 30% during the 2014-2024 decade, which is much faster that average.

The BLS also reports the average salary for physician assistants in May 2015 as $99,270. The highest-paying states include Nevada, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Connecticut.

Step 5: Participate in Continuing Medical Education (CME) Courses

Continuing education courses are recommended as a way of remaining informed of improvements in technology and medicine. You'll also be required to complete 100 hours of continuing education in each 2-year interval to maintain your PA certification, as well as taking a recertification exam every 10 years.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

A related career that requires a bachelor's degree is a registered nurse (RN). RNs provide patient care and patient support throughout their medical treatment. A couple of other similar careers are occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists. These positions require a master's degree. Occupational therapists work with patients who need to re-learn or develop skills to allow them to work and perform daily tasks. They may have lost these skills due to disability, injury or illness. Speech-language pathologists help patients suffering from communication or swallowing disorders. They diagnose and treat these issues, working to improve speech and swallowing abilities.

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