Careers as a PA

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What are PAs?

Physician assistants (PAs) are highly qualified, health professionals who are prepared, through a demanding curriculum (increasingly at the master’s level), to practice medicine with physician supervision. Within the physician/PA relationship, PAs can have a great deal of autonomy and independence. Some PAs, for example, are the principal caregivers in rural or inner city clinics where a physician provides supervision by phone and/or is present for only one or two days each week.

The Work and Work Settings of PAs

PAs perform many of the same tasks as physicians do. PAs interview and examine patients. They order and interpret tests, diagnose illness, and work with patients in developing feasible management plans. They counsel and educate patients and their families. Depending on their specialty and level of training, PAs perform office procedures, make hospital rounds, assist with surgery, write prescriptions, and much more.

PAs are educated and credentialed as generalists. Almost one-third (30%) of them work in the primary care specialties of family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, and obstetrics/gynecology. PAs also work in specialty and subspecialty fields, such as general surgery and the surgical subspecialties.

Medical practices, hospitals, community clinics, urban and rural health clinics, HMOs, VA medical centers, correctional institutions, military installations, nursing homes, public health agencies, and research centers are among the organizations that employ PAs. PAs have worked in IHS for more than 30 years. They also work in Federal, Urban and Tribal health care facilities.

In addition to their clinical responsibilities, some PAs have administrative responsibilities that might include the supervision of medical assistants and nurses. PAs with advanced degrees and other credentials can serve as faculty members in PA Programs. Some PAs also have research responsibilities.

The PA profession was established in 1965. At the beginning of 2010, there were more than 78,000 PAs in clinical practice in the United States.


Excellent Job Opportunities

The continuing expansion of the health care industry, sky rocketing costs, and the urgent need for health care providers in rural and inner city settings contribute to the demand for PAs.

Money Magazine and Salary.com rated the PA profession fifth among the top 10 jobs. (Their rating takes into account growth, pay, stress-levels, and other factors.) The authors of the ratings write, “PAs can specialize, from the E.R. to pediatrics to orthopedics, and they can switch fields. Thanks to an aging population and demand for more cost-effective care, this job offers a level of security other professions can't match.”

According to the
American Academy of Physician Assistants’ 2008 Census Survey, the mean total annual income from primary employer for respondents who are not self-employed and who work at least 32 hours per week for their primary employer and who are not self-employed is $89,987. The median is $87,710. Not surprisingly, the physician assistant profession ranks among the fastest growing occupations in the United States.

American Indian/ Alaska Native PAs

As in other health professions, American Indian and Alaskan Native people are underrepresented in the PA profession. The profiles of American Indian and Alaskan Native PAs and PA students illustrate some of the many opportunities available to indigenous PAs as well as the pride that Native communities display when they are taken care of by one of their own.

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Parts of this article were originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Winds of Change.