In Demand: Physician Assistants

Sometimes there just aren't enough doctors to go around in rural and inner city clinics. To help ease these workloads, physician assistants step in to provide healthcare services under the supervision of physicians.

If you are interested in a career in medicine, but can't afford the time and expense of medical school, here is an overview of physician assistants from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):


Physician assistants (PAs) are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic and preventative health care services under the watchful eye of a physician. They take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests, make diagnoses and treat injuries.

In all states but Indiana, Louisiana and Ohio, PAs can write prescriptions for medications. In some rural or inner city clinics, a PA may be a principal care provider. They may also make house calls or go to hospitals and nursing care facilities to check on patients, reporting back to the physician.

Training and Education

In all states, PAs must complete an accredited, formal education program, and most have at least a bachelor's degree. Most programs require at least two years of college and some healthcare work experience.

PA programs usually last two years and are full-time. Upon graduation, all PAs must pass the Physician Assistants National Certifying Examination, administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

PAs need leadership skills, self-confidence and emotional stability.


Many PAs work in primary care specialties; others work in general and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics and geriatrics. Those specializing in surgery provide preoperative and postoperative care and may work as assistants during major surgery.

More than half of PA jobs are in the offices of physicians or other health practitioners. About 25 percent are in hospitals. The rest were mostly in outpatient care centers, the Federal government, educational services and employment services. Some PAs hold two or more jobs.

Pros and Cons

Becoming a licensed physician assistant requires far less education than it would take to become a doctor. PAs usually work in comfortable offices, and work fewer hours than physicians, usually around 40 hours per week. As they become more experienced, PAs generally receive higher pay.

However, by the nature of the job, PAs will always be supervised by physicians. They also may have to work weekends, nights or early morning shifts, and are sometimes on call.


Median annual earnings of physician assistants were $64,670 in 2002, according to the BLS. Income varies by specialty, practice setting, geographical location and years of experience.

Job Outlook

As the healthcare industry continues to expand, employment of PAs is projected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2012. The BLS expects physicians and institutions will employ more PAs to provide primary care because they are cost effective and productive.

PAs should find a growing number of jobs in institutions like hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics and prisons. Opportunities will be best in states that allow PAs a wider scope of practice.

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Source: BLS October 2004
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