Physician assistants are formally trained to provide preventive, therapeutic and diagnostic healthcare services in their work as part of a healthcare team. They order and interpret x-rays and laboratory tests, take medical histories, instruct and counsel patients, order or carry out therapy, and record progress notes, as well as treat minor injuries by casting, splinting and suturing. They are sometimes responsible for supervising medical assistants and technicians and for other managerial tasks.
The duties of physician assistants are determined by state law and by the supervising physician. They may perform most of the medical treatment in doctor’s offices or clinics where physicians are only present one or two days a week. In this case, the physician assistant confers with the supervising physician as required by law and as needed.
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Physician assistants often work in primary care specialties, such as pediatrics, family medicine or general internal medicine. Those who specialize in surgery may work as first or second assistants during major surgery and provide preoperative and postoperative patient care.
Physician Assistants Job Summary
- Admission requirements to training programs vary, but most applicants have health-related work experience and a college degree.
- In order to obtain a license, physician assistants must complete an accredited education program and pass a national exam.
- Some physician assistants have prior medical experience as paramedics, registered nurses or emergency medical technicians, although this is not mandatory.
- Job opportunities should be good, especially in rural and inner-city healthcare facilities.
Work Environment for Physician Assistants
Physician assistants usually work in well-lighted, comfortable settings in doctors’ offices or in clinics. Part of the day they may be on their feet treating injuries and examining patients, and other times they may sit for short periods to take patients’ medical histories, counsel patients and perform other duties. Those working in surgery may be required to stand for much of their workday. They may also be required to do a lot walking at times.
The work schedule of physician assistants often depends on the hours of the supervising physician. In most medical offices, physician assistants work the same hours as the physician or surgeon. If they work in a hospital setting, they may b e required to make early morning hospital rounds to visit patients or work nights or weekends. In addition, physician assistants may be on call. Those who work in clinics normally work a 40-hour week.
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Physician Assistants Degrees, Training and Licensing
Educational programs and degrees for physician assistants normally take at least two years for full-time students to complete. Admissions requirements vary depending on the program. Most programs are offered at four-year colleges, academic health centers, schools of allied health and medical schools; a few are offered at community colleges, hospitals or are part of the military.
In 2008, there were 142 programs approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. The majority of them offered master's degrees programs; a smaller number awarded bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees or certificates. Physician assistants complete laboratory and classroom instruction in clinical medicine, medical ethics, physical diagnosis, clinical pharmacology, human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and pathology. They must also complete supervised clinical training in areas such as internal medicine, surgery, family medicine, prenatal care and gynecology, pediatrics, emergency medicine and geriatrics.
All states and the District of Columbia require physician assistants to be graduates of an accredited physician assistant education program and to pass the exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Those who meet the requirements and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination earn the Physician Assistant – Certified designation. Continuing education is required for physician assistants to maintain their certification.
Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook and Earnings
Physician assistants held about 76,900 jobs in May 2009, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most physician assistants worked in physicians’ offices, while others were employed by hospitals, outpatient care centers, federal government agencies, and colleges, universities and professional schools.
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The BLS predicts that employment in this field will grow much faster than the average for all occupations, with 39% growth from 2008 to 2018. This growth will be spurred by the emphasis on cost containment and because physician assistants are productive members of healthcare teams who can relieve physicians of routine procedures and duties. Physician assistants will likely also see more jobs in institutional settings, such as prisons, hospitals, academic medical centers and public clinics.
In May 2009, the BLS reported that the median annual salary for physician assistants was $84,420. The middle 50% of physician assistants make between $71,160 and $99,540, while the lowest 10% made $55,880 or less each year. The highest 10% earned in excess of $115,080.