The physician assistant, or PA, role emerged in the mid-1960s in response to a shortage of primary care physicians in the United States as a whole—and rural and underserved areas in particular. At first, PAs were responsible for supporting doctors in their work and were not regarded as primary patient caregivers. Today, PAs are still technically classified as medical support professionals, but the scope of their work has grown significantly.
There are more than 125,000 PAs increasing access to health care in the U.S. Their responsibilities overlap with both doctors and nurse practitioners and include conducting physical exams, diagnosing patients, creating treatment plans, and prescribing medications. Physician assistants are also qualified to interpret diagnostic tests and participate in surgeries.
However, many people are still unfamiliar with this patient-focused career path or unsure what PAs do. Given that these direct care providers were first conceived of as a solution to a lack of qualified doctors, it should come as no surprise that there are physician assistants in nearly every specialty area of medicine. What might surprise you is just how in-demand and well-paid these health care professionals are across settings.
If you’re interested in becoming a certified patient care provider, look into physician assistant master’s programs such as the University of Pittsburgh‘s MS in Physician Assistant Studies (PAS-Hybrid). This two-year graduate degree program will give you the knowledge, skills, and credentials to work in direct care roles in various specialty areas of medicine.
The question ‘Where do physician assistants work?’ is easy to answer because PAs work in specialties and settings across health care. While primary care is the most popular PA specialization, physician assistants also work in emergency medicine, cardiology, occupational health, geriatrics, radiology, orthopedic medicine, and every other specialty.
The scope of PA practice varies from specialty to specialty. PAs serve as primary health care providers in family medicine, internal medicine, home care, obstetrics, and pediatrics. At the same time, physician assistants who specialize in surgery may handle perioperative responsibilities, including intra-operative assisting, outpatient clinic examination, post-anesthesia care, pre-admission, surgical intensive care, and step-down unit treatments. The scope of PA practice also varies by state. State medical boards govern how much autonomy physician assistants have in their practice.
Physician assistants work in all clinical settings. However, that doesn’t mean they’re evenly distributed among those settings. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, 53% of PAs work in general medicine and family practice settings, 26% work in hospitals, 8% work in outpatient care centers, and 5% work in education.
A PA’s responsibilities can vary by setting. For example, PAs in primary care settings provide nearly all the same services doctors and nurse practitioners do. In hospitals, physician assistants practice across departments, admit patients, conduct rounds, provide direct care, and order medications, treatments, and lab tests. In surgical centers, PAs handle therapeutic, diagnostic, surgical, and preventative care. Home health care, however, tends to be more collaborative. Physician assistants work as part of teams of clinicians—nurse practitioners, doctors, and specialists—while providing primary care, complex care management, advanced care planning, and wellness coaching.
PAs can work as licensed care providers in every state, the District of Columbia, and every United States territory except Puerto Rico. In most of these, medical licensing boards have a PA advisory committee or council that oversees physician assistant licensure. Eight states have distinct PA boards, but these are often still regulated by state medical licensing boards to varying degrees. For example, in California, Michigan, and Texas, the PA boards operate under the state medical board. Meanwhile, independent physician assistant boards have full authority over PA licensure and practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Utah.
Every state and territory has its own licensing processes. For example, in Pennsylvania, 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
PAs must also complete approved training on child abuse recognition and reporting, pain management and the identification of addiction, or the practices of prescribing or dispensing opioids.
Physician assistant salaries vary based on numerous factors. According to BLS data, the average PA earns about $115,000 per year, and the 10% highest-paid earns more than $162,000. However, the BLS calculates those figures based on input submitted by PAs from across settings, specialty areas, and locations. Drill down and physician assistant salaries vary by work environment. For example, physician assistants employed by outpatient care centers earn close to $125,000, while PAs who work in doctors’ offices earn about $113,000.
PA salaries also vary from state to state and even city to city. Top-paying states for physician assistants include Connecticut ($137,060), Washington ($129,520), New Jersey ($129,440), Alaska ($128,530), and California ($127,520). In Pennsylvania, a successful PA can earn $130,000, and the average physician assistant salary in Pittsburgh is close to $150,000.
Additionally, physician assistant salaries vary by specialty. The average PA working in oncology, for instance, earns about $149,000, while a physician assistant working in pediatrics may earn closer to $99,000. American Academy of Physician Assistants surveys find the top-paying PA specialties include cardiovascular surgery, thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, dermatology, and occupational medicine. Of the 10 highest-paying specialty areas, four are surgical subspecialties.
Physician assistants can change specialties relatively quickly because the education required to become a physician assistant covers many practice areas. Most PA master’s degree programs, including the PAS-Hybrid program offered by the University of Pittsburgh, use a broad physician assistant studies curriculum that supports careers in various settings and specialty areas. Consequently, physician assistants usually don’t have to recertify to change specialties or work in new settings. They may seek additional education or certifications, but these aren’t necessary to make a lateral move.
When PAs transition from one specialty into another, they often reskill on the job. As long as their place of employment meets the state medical board’s clinical training and supervision requirements, physician assistants can move between specialties relatively quickly. When researchers examined four decades of data, they found that 49% of PAs reported working in different specialties at different points in their careers.
Pitt offers a top-tier educational experience that prioritizes flexibility. Very few hybrid degree programs exist for PAs, and PA programs offered at the master’s degree level account for just 5% of conferrals. The University of Pittsburgh’s Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program is one. This graduate program pairs a comprehensive virtual medical education with hands-on immersion opportunities and exceptional full-time clinical rotation placements within a network of over 2,000 health care settings across the country. Pitt PAS-Hybrid graduates are prepared to push the edge of what is possible in health care and drive innovation in patient care in various physician assistant career paths.
That depends. Are you interested in medicine and making a difference in health care with a relatively small investment of money and time? You can get the graduate education necessary to become a PA for about $115,000 in the University of Pittsburgh’s MS in Physician Assistant Studies program versus $250,000 to $330,000 for medical school. While MDs in the U.S. complete about 14 years of higher education—four years of college, four years of medical school, and three to eight years spent in a residency or fellowship— PAs are eligible for licensure after completing just six to nine years of higher education.
This is also an excellent professional pathway for those who feel driven to join the ranks of hands-on patient care providers but also want flexibility and work/life balance. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, “PAs are educated as medical generalists and recertify as medical generalists,” which “lends a PA to having flexibility in their specialty.” Physician assistants have lower rates of burnout than doctors and nurses.
And finally, if you’re looking for job satisfaction and stability, exploring the opportunities open to PAs is an intelligent move. U.S. News & World Report ranks physician assistant highly in its lists of the 100 best jobs in the United States, the best health care jobs, and the best STEM jobs. Among recently certified PAs, 74% assess the job market as having “many jobs.” According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S. could face a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030, which may speed up the rate of job creation for PAs. The BLS predicts employers will create more than 40,000 new jobs for physician assistants in the next 10 years—a growth rate of 31%.
Personal satisfaction is yet another reason to explore this career. Thousands of people in rural and underserved areas have access to quality health care because there are physician assistants. Research shows that PAs provide high-quality care with outcomes similar to that of MDs. In just a few years, you can make an immediate and profound impact in health care.
If you’re ready to pursue a career in a growing health care field with high job satisfaction while making a positive difference in patients’ lives, request more information today on admission into the University of Pittsburgh’s MS in PA Studies or register for an upcoming online event to learn more.
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/.