If you’ve ever imagined yourself as a health care provider, now is a great time to consider entering the profession. You don’t need a doctorate to work in this burgeoning industry (health care jobs should increase by 16% between 2020 and 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). In fact, you don’t even need one to see, diagnose and medicate patients.
That comes as a surprise to some, but in fact one of the fastest-growing professions in health care is a patient-facing role: physician assistant (PA). BLS data indicate that the U.S. should add more than 40,000 PAs between 2020 and 2030, representing an impressive 31% growth rate over that period (by comparison, the entire job market should grow at a rate of just under 8%).
Becoming a PA is a prudent career choice for those who would like to treat patients but lack the time or inclination for the medical school grind. You can become a PA with a master’s degree, meaning you can transition from bachelor’s degree-level health care aspirant to PA in about two years—a lot less time than it takes to become a physician.
You’ll need more than an interest in and aptitude for medicine to excel in this profession, however. Successful PAs typically share many qualities that suit them to this demanding role. Before you invest time and money in a career change, you should learn as much as you can about what being a PA entails. The more you know about the education, skills and characteristics necessary to be a capable physician assistant, the more confident you’ll be when it comes time to enroll in a master’s-level PA program like University of Pittsburgh’s MS in Physician Assistant Studies.
The title physician assistant makes it sound like PAs aren’t fully-fledged health care specialists, but nothing could be further from the truth. PAs are licensed patient care providers who can legally:
- Assist during surgical procedures
- Conduct physical exams
- Create treatment plans
- Diagnose medical conditions
- Interpret diagnostic tests
- Obtain patient histories
- Prescribe medication
Physician assistants work in every medical specialization. Because they’re trained as generalists, they can move among specializations with relative ease. According to the National Commission on Certification of PAs (NCCPA), roughly 25% of PAs work in general practice/primary care. Other popular practice areas include:
- Surgical subspecialties (18.7%)
- Emergency medicine (12.4%)
- Internal medicine subspecialties (9.5%)
- Dermatology (4.1%)
- Hospital medicine (3.6%)
- Pediatrics (1.9%)
Because medicine is regulated at the state level, the precise scope of physician assistant responsibilities and authorizations varies by jurisdiction, setting and specialization. As a general rule, PAs do everything that nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses do and many of the things MDs do. Most people don’t realize just how much autonomy PAs exercise. They work under physician oversight, but that may involve no more than signing off on charts. PAs make many medical decisions for patients without any input from a supervising physician. At some remote sites (such as rural clinics), PAs may not confer with a doctor at all.
Physician assistants must complete a graduate-level program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) and pass the 300-question, five-hour, multiple-choice Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to earn certification. The requirements to enter this field are straightforward and rigorous.
Enrollment in many physician assistant studies master’s degree programs is limited to applicants with a STEM background and prior patient care experience. The student body in Pitt PAS-Hybrid program, for example, includes:
- EMTs or paramedics
- Medical assistants
- Nurse’s aides or nursing assistants
- Patient care attendants
- PT/OT assistants
- Registered nurses
- Respiratory therapists or aides
Applicants to ARC-PA-accredited PA master’s programs like Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid may be required to complete additional bachelor’s-level coursework in chemistry, biology, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, statistics and other STEM subjects. It may also involve completing specific experiential prerequisites. For example, Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences requires a minimum of 500 hours of direct patient care experience of Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program applicants. What constitutes ‘direct patient care experience’ varies from university to university. Some schools accept experience in medical support fields like patient advocacy, medical translation, patient safety compliance and clinical research.
Most physician assistant studies master’s programs take about two years to complete. They are typically divided into two components:
- A didactic or instructional core covering such topics as clinical practice fundamentals, pharmacology, working with patients, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, health policy and surgical practice
- Clinical rotations that give students thousands of hours of experience in a wide variety of health care settings and specialties
PAS-Hybrid candidates at Pitt complete much of the synchronous Year One coursework virtually. They only come to the Pittsburgh campus for three immersive learning experiences. During the second phase of the program, the university’s placement team helps students secure eight required clinical rotations. The team has secured over 2,000 clinical placement slots across the country.
Upon graduation, students can sit for the PANCE to earn the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential. Once they pass, they must still fulfill additional requirements for PA licensure in their states. In Pennsylvania, for example, physician assistants with a PA-C apply for licensure by filling out the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine’s licensure application, paying a $30 application fee and submitting:
- A clean criminal background check
- A clean report from the National Practitioner Data Bank
- Letters of good standing
- Official verification of education
- A resume or CV
Candidates must also complete approved training in recognizing child abuse and opioid misuse.
It should go without saying that a proficient physician assistant has highly developed patient care skills and a firm grasp of medical science. Other valuable skills might not be quite so self-evident. They include those listed below.
Successful PAs need to be able to shift their focus from one issue to the next quickly. New admissions, emergency procedures and unexpected consultations can all be part of a typical day. A patient’s condition can change rapidly, requiring a quick response recalibration. Physician assistants should be comfortable making decisions and taking action quickly.
A good bedside manner is critical to competent patient care. Patients arrive in medical offices understandably anxious; a calm and reassuring caregiver can make all the difference in delivering effective care. Studies show that treating patients with dignity and respect correlates to better health outcomes. That may be partly because patients who feel respected are more likely to follow the medical advice they receive.
Medicine is unpredictable and some unforeseen events can be precarious. Providers overwhelmed by the unexpected won’t perform as well as those who stay grounded in stressful situations. Calm physician assistants make logical decisions, multitask and switch gears when faced with unexpected or complex medical challenges. Their demeanor also reassures patients at a time they most need solace.
Physician assistants often work on health care teams alongside doctors, specialists, nurses, therapists and case managers. Adept PAs are comfortable accepting advice from others, deferring to others’ expertise, and pushing back respectfully when disagreements arise.
Physician assistants interact with hundreds of people each week, from doctors to techs to patients and their families. They communicate productively with not only their professional peers but also health care stakeholders and patients who may have limited health literacy. In short, they need fluency in complex medical terminology and the ability to explain conditions and treatment in layman’s terms. Accordingly, communication skills are essential in this job.
Studies show that about half of patients in the U.S. feel compassion is missing from health care even though evidence indicates that kindness and empathy produce improved health care results. PAs don’t just heal bodies; they heal people. That’s why the best physician assistants strive to ensure that patients who aren’t feeling well are as comfortable as possible, unafraid and confident they’re in good hands.
Physician assistants work under the supervision of doctors, but they frequently operate with significant autonomy. In many situations, they are the ones who deliver primary care to a patient. To execute this responsibility, PAs must have confidence in their patient assessment and diagnostic skills, decision-making skills and caregiving abilities. They also need to communicate that confidence to patients so they will be more likely to follow the PAs guidance.
Medicine is a constantly evolving field. Practitioners curious about the latest developments have a natural advantage in delivering effective health care. PAs also enjoy the ability to move relatively easily between specialty areas of medicine—including into subfields in which they have little formal training. However, to excel in new settings requires curiosity because physician assistants have to learn on the job. Many also continue their studies at home, take online and live courses or work with a mentor to keep abreast of the latest medical advances.
Physician assistants frequently must analyze a lot of information in a relatively short period and draw the correct conclusion. Their critical-thinking skills must be sharp to assess a patient and prescribe treatment without consulting with their attending physician on every case.
Everyone has heard horror stories of medical errors caused by inattention. Details are critical in medicine; even minor details can have a substantial impact on medical care. Whether it’s an erroneously written prescription, a misread test, or an incorrectly entered lab result, errors can result in adverse outcomes. PAs must be highly sensitive to patient particulars—even in settings that are fast-paced or chaotic. Detail-oriented physician assistants are also more likely to notice subtle changes in patient condition, catch drug interactions and identify potentially important information in patient histories.
Most PAs spend a significant part of their workday interacting with people. They need strong interpersonal skills in many of their primary responsibilities. They must be comfortable treating patients from many different backgrounds, cultures and economic strata and collaborating with coworkers from diverse medical disciplines.
Successful physician assistants operate in intense, fast-paced environments without making mistakes or leaving patients feeling unsatisfied with their care. They find a functional balance between speed and effectiveness that ensures productivity stays high without sacrificing the quality of care. Some studies show that an efficient PA can boost the efficiency of an entire practice while lowering costs.
Physician assistants often treat people who are angry, scared, ill, impaired by drugs or otherwise not at their best. Some work in settings like hospice centers and oncology clinics, where unhappy outcomes occur regularly. They need to keep their personal feelings compartmentalized and protect their emotional wellbeing so they can focus on patients.
No matter how thoroughly you’re trained or how well you’ve prepared, you cannot solve every patient’s problem on your own. PAs know their limits and are comfortable seeking out help when it’s needed, whether that be from a supervising physician, a nurse or other clinical practitioners. They also understand the limits of medical science and are modest enough to know they cannot transcend them.
PAs technically work under the supervision of a physician, but that doesn’t mean physician assistants are constantly monitored. Most spend more time working alone than they do working side by side with a doctor. They need to be comfortable treating patients without oversight.
The average PA sees 19 patients each day. They must keep meticulous notes to maintain accurate medical records and avoid mistaking one patient for another. The job requires PAs to process vast amounts of information each day. Successful physician assistants treat that data with great care because they understand the necessity of accurate records in optimizing health care long-term.
Physician assistants deal with stress every day. They can’t let it erode their passion or effectiveness. Instead, they respond to constructive criticism by working toward improvement, looking at difficult patient encounters as opportunities to grow and dealing with the heartache that can go hand-in-hand with a career in medicine by taking care of themselves.
Effectual PAs don’t let tough problems wear down their confidence and they don’t give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. They leverage well-developed problem-solving skills to find novel approaches when old ones prove inadequate. When challenges arise—patients with mysterious symptoms, resource shortages, practitioner disagreements—a PA must focus on results and the search for solutions that produce them.
To decide whether the PA profession is right for you, first ask yourself whether health care is your calling. There are many positives, including a rapidly growing job market and the opportunity to help others manage illness and injuries. On the downside, health care can be stressful because it sometimes deals with actual life-and-death situations.
If you choose to pursue a health care career, you still have many options. You could become a health care administrator, managing health care facilities and processing insurance claims. Health informatics—the use of data and analytic tools to improve treatment, management and public health policy—is another option. However, if you find patient care most compelling, you might be happiest as a physician assistant. If you have the qualities listed above, chances are you’ll be a good fit for the profession.
Before you make that commitment, make sure you’re ready. Does the idea of interacting with patients and peers all day, every day invigorate you? Will you be comfortable asking patients the personal questions that medical exams inevitably include? Can you deliver bad news to patients when necessary? If you hope to be a PA, your answer to all these questions should be yes.
Next, ask yourself: are you anxious to get started on your career? Physician assistant programs are significantly shorter than programs for MDs. Pitt’s Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program, for example, takes about two years to complete, which means students start impacting the lives of patients more quickly than MDs. Their financial investment is also much smaller—about $115,000 for Pitt’s program versus $250,000 to $330,000 for medical school.
While PA programs are shorter and less expensive, they are very rigorous. Students spend long hours studying and the clinical rotations are challenging. Aspiring PAs must absorb a lot of information in a very short time. That’s a process that continues throughout their careers. The body of medical research never stops growing, and best practices change over time. Physician assistants have to keep up with changes in the field. Passing the PANCE and getting licensed is just the beginning of your journey.
If all that sounds like a fulfilling challenge you can’t wait to take on, you probably would be happy as a physician assistant. You wouldn’t be alone in that feeling. U.S. News & World Report ranks physician assistant #1 in its lists of the 100 best jobs in the United States, best health care jobs and best STEM jobs. The average PA earns about $115,000 per year, while the highest-paid 10% earn more than $162,000. Demand for PAs is higher than the supply of qualified professionals in what the BLS ranks as the seventh-fastest growing profession in the country. Want to learn more? Register for an upcoming webinar to connect with the enrollment team and get your questions answered.
The ARC-PA has granted Accreditation-Provisional status to the University of Pittsburgh Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program sponsored by University of Pittsburgh. Accreditation-Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding accreditation-provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.
Accreditation-Provisional does not ensure any subsequent accreditation status. It is limited to no more than five years from matriculation of the first class.
The program’s accreditation history can be viewed on the ARC-PA website at http://www.arc-pa.org/accreditation-history-university-of-pittsburgh-hybrid/.