With an annual employment growth rate of 6 to 7%, the physician assistant (PA) profession is among the fastest growing in the medical field. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that the number of PA jobs should increase 27% by 2032. By way of comparison, the number of physicians and surgeons is projected to increase only 3% over the same timeframe. This shift in the balance of medical professionals means PAs will take on a growing share of the nation’s health care needs in years to come.
PAs perform many of the same tasks as medical doctors (MDs). They conduct physical exams, diagnose conditions and prescribe medication. Their training, however, is less costly and considerably shorter than medical doctors’, which can take up to 15 years. PAs earn a median annual income of $126,000; the top 4 percent earn over $200,000 annually.
Based on these statistics, it’s easy to see why thousands of aspiring health care providers choose this career path each year. Are they happy with their decision? Drawing from the The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)’s 2022 survey, this article summarizes physician assistant job satisfaction and the factors that contribute to it.
Overall Job Satisfaction Rate
According to the NCCPA’s 2022 Statistical Profile of Board Certified PAs, 86.7% of PAs are satisfied with their career choice; that figure compares favorably with physicians’ 68% job satisfaction rate. PAs are happiest with their present employment situations (83.6%) and slightly less satisfied with their work-life balance (71%), number of hours worked (77%) and employee benefits (73%).
PA satisfaction rates vary by specialty and employer. Fortunately, the PA profession is a highly flexible one; as the AAPA notes, “PAs are one of the most versatile health care providers.” PAs who are unhappy with their current positions may be able to improve their job satisfaction by changing specialties or finding a new role at a different organization.
Digging Down Into the Details
The NCCPA disaggregates its data by various categories—including specialty and practice setting—to provide more detailed and specific insight into PA job satisfaction. The following sections summarize this granular data.
Job Satisfaction by Practice Setting
In its 2022 annual report, the NCCPA delves into job satisfaction by practice setting, focusing on those who employ the greatest number of PAs.
According to the report, PAs in office-based private practices have high levels of satisfaction, with 85% of survey respondents reporting that they are at least “somewhat satisfied” with their job. The stable and predictable nature of office work environments and the relative lack of medical trauma likely contribute to this result.
Physician assistants working in urgent care centers were far more dissatisfied than their peers in other settings, with nearly 18% reporting some level of dissatisfaction (for office-based PAs, that figure is about 12%). A heavier and more demanding workload probably accounts for this result. This also explains urgent care PAs’ relatively high burnout levels (see below for more detail).
Job Satisfaction by Specialty
According to the NCCPA PA specialty report, PAs specializing in plastic surgery enjoy the highest overall job satisfaction (89%), followed closely by obstetrics and gynecology at 88.8%. 87% of PAs specializing in otolaryngology, oncology and dermatology are satisfied with their present jobs.
Various factors influence these high levels of job satisfaction. PAs specializing in orthopedic surgery, for example, report an 89.1% satisfaction level with their career, 86.6% satisfaction with their present job, 76.4% satisfaction with their employer and 71% satisfaction with their work-life balance. Orthopedic surgery PAs constitute approximately 11% of the PA workforce.
PAs in primary care and family medicine represent about 40% of all PAs. These professionals are happiest with their career choice (87.2%), present job (82.5%) and geographic location (82.7%). They are least satisfied with their work-life balance (67.5%) and number of hours worked per week (75.4%).
Stress levels clearly impact job satisfaction. Only 78% of PAs specializing in emergency medicine (11.2% of the PA workforce) report satisfaction in their current positions, well below the average for all PAs. Emergency medicine PAs also report lower-than-average satisfaction with their work-life balance, employers and employee benefits.
Burnout by Practice Setting
The NCCPA survey reports that 32% of PAs feel some level of burnout. 43% of PAs who plan to leave their positions cited burnout as the reason.
Physician assistants working in community health centers reported the highest rates of burnout at 41%, followed by PAs in urgent care (nearly 40%). Office-based private practice PAs reported the lowest levels of burnout at 29%, correlating with the finding that private practice PAs experience high job satisfaction. Overall, nearly 68% of survey respondents said they have no symptoms of burnout.
Burnout by Specialty
PAs working in physical medicine/rehabilitation report the lowest burnout levels, with only around 24% of PAs in this specialization reporting one or more symptoms of burnout. PAs working in dermatology and plastic surgery also report low levels of burnout, likely due to their predictable schedules and lower intensity workloads. In contrast, nearly 40% of emergency medicine and critical care PAs report burnout.
How to Become a Physician Assistant
Most PAs start their career journey by earning a STEM-focused bachelor’s degree. Physician assistant studies master’s programs typically require students to complete prerequisite science courses. You can fulfill this requirement with bridge courses if your undergraduate curriculum does not fulfill them.
Next, prospective PAs acquire hands-on patient care experience. The University of Pittsburgh’s MS in Physician Assistant Studies (PAS-Hybrid) Program mandates 500 hours of patient care experience, which can include working as a nurse, paramedic, medical assistant or similar role. At that point, you’ll be ready to apply to a PAS program.
Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid Program offers students the opportunity to complete their PA studies without having to relocate. Students participate in interactive online lectures with three in-person immersions and eight clinical placements. Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences has a network of health care settings across the U.S. to enable students to complete their clinical requirements.
In as little as two years, students graduate with the knowledge and expertise to assess patients, formulate diagnosis, order lab tests, and prescribe medications. Before graduates can apply for state licensure and begin practicing, they must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Once certified and licensed, PAs can work in specialities that include primary care, internal medicine and surgery.
With a career as a physician assistant, you can transform patient care in your community. If you are ready to take the next step, reach out to an enrollment advisor for more information on how and when you can start your Pitt PAS-Hybrid application today.