Does the United States Have Enough Physician Assistants?

January 18, 2024

The number of physician assistants in the United States is on the rise; according to the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), it grew at an annual rate between 6.2% and 6.7% from 2014 to 2022. That’s a high rate of growth that raises the question: Will demand keep pace with supply, or is there a surplus of PAs on the horizon?

While no one can predict the future with absolute certainty, the data and trends all strongly suggest that demand for PAs will continue to increase even as supply grows. Let’s take a closer look at what the future might hold.

An Aging Population

Before Millennials, Baby Boomers were the largest generation in American history. With the youngest Boomers turning 60, it’s no secret that the country is getting older. According to The Washington Post, about 80.8 million Americans will be 65 or older by 2040, more than double the number in 2000. The projected number of Americans 85 and older should grow from 6.7 million in 2020 to 14.4 million in 2040.

An aging population means more medical appointments, prescriptions, and procedures. While medical advances prolong life, older adults inevitably face health challenges. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), aging increases the risk of the following “leading drivers of illness, disability, death and health care costs”:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

The CDC notes that “In 2021, health care and long-term care costs associated with Alzheimer’s and other dementias were $355 billion, making them some of the costliest conditions to society.”

Patients aren’t the only ones aging; so too are health care providers. Doctors are reaching retirement age in increasing numbers just as demand for providers continues to climb.

A Physician Shortage

The United States faces a potential shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, with the shortfalls impacting both primary and specialty care, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Within the next decade, more than two of every five active American physicians will be 65 or older.

Those physicians are approaching retirement age at the same time adult primary care doctors are growing scarce, Kaiser Health News reports: “The percentage of U.S. doctors in adult primary care has been declining for years and is now about 25% – a tipping point beyond which many Americans won’t be able to find a family doctor at all.” More than 100 million Americans lack access to primary care, almost double the number from 2014.

The nation needs additional health care providers to fill those gaps and care for an aging population. Fortunately, PAs can assume many of the same responsibilities as primary care physicians. They include:

  • Capturing medical histories (recording and reviewing)
  • Performing examinations
  • Running and interpreting diagnostic tests (including x-rays)
  • Diagnosing, treating and counseling patients
  • Researching new treatments
  • Writing prescriptions       

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Regional Disparities in Health Care Service

An aging population only tells part of the story of the health care provider shortage. Regional discrepancies also play a significant role. More than 100 million Americans live in Health Provider Shortage Areas (HPSAs), according to Kaiser. HPSAs need more than 17,000 practitioners. The more than 200 million Americans who do not live in HPSAs also have unmet care needs due to care shortfalls.

PAs have proven effective in delivering care to these areas. According to the NCCPA, 22.8% of all PAs work in an HPSA or medically underserved area (MUA). Demand for health care professionals in these areas should persist well into the future. Some states, particularly in the South, have relatively low levels of PA service. Opportunities for PAs in this region are on the rise, however: Some states saw a dramatic increase in PAs from 2018 to 2022, including Alabama (43.4%), Arkansas (38.0%) and Mississippi (47.6%).

PA Job Listings Take Months to Fill

Need more proof that PA demand continues to outstrip supply? Nearly one-fourth of PA job listings–22.2%–go unfilled for six months or more, while 63.5% take two or more months to fill, according to the NCCPA. Those jobs would fill much faster in the case of an oversupply.

PAs specialize much like physicians, and supply and demand varies according to specialty. Here are some PA specialties and the percentage reporting that their place of employment is recruiting and hiring PAs, according to the NCCPA Statistical Profile of Board Certified PAs by Specialty 2022: 

  • Primary care: 30.6%
  • Family medicine/general practice: 31.3%
  • Internal medicine/general practice: 31.7%
  • Oncology: 51.7%
  • Physical medicine/rehabilitation: 22.6%

Average Age of PAs 

Physicians aren’t the only health care providers approaching retirement age. Nearly 8% of PAs are 60 or older, while another 12.6% are in their 50s, the NCCPA reports. The majority of PAs are younger, and the size of the PA population is growing, but a significant number of PAs will have to be replaced over the next decade. 

Earn Your PA Master’s from Pitt 

Ready to pursue a rewarding career while helping to fill a crucial health care need? Consider the Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies – Hybrid Program (PAS-Hybrid) at the University of Pittsburgh. The program, delivered through the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, provides aspiring PAs the knowledge, clinical experience and confidence to lead in the evolving world of health care.

Hybrid program delivery means students learn in a combination of online and in-person environments. Interactive virtual lectures and in-person clinical rotations—available at over 1,000 health care placement slots nationwide—constitute the curriculum, which students can complete in as little as two years. 

PAs provide essential health care services and enjoy tremendous flexibility in terms of facilities and settings, such as internal medicine, primary care and surgical specialties. Graduates of Pitt’s two-year PA program have the preparation they need to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

Contact an enrollment advisor for more information and learn more along with how and when you can apply here

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