With a job market growing 27% over the next decade, physician assistants (PAs) represent one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States. An aging population requiring more health care services and a growing physician shortage number among the factors driving this trend.
Who makes up this emerging group of health care professionals? The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), the nation’s only certifying organization for PAs, conducts detailed annual surveys that answer this question.
Who Becomes a PA?
The NCCPA collects data on PAs’ age, gender, race, ethnicity, location, military affiliation, spoken language, and postgraduate training and publishes it in its Statistical Profile of Board Certified PAs and Statistical Profile of Board Certified PAs by Specialty reports. Review the results below to discover who your peers will be when you become a PA.
Age and Gender Demographics
Most PAs (61%) are aged 30 to 50, with 30 to 39-year-olds making up almost 40 percent of the workforce. Nearly eight percent of PAs are in their sixties. Six percent plan to retire in the next five years.
The PA workforce is predominately female-identifying across all specializations. They are most strongly represented in obstetrics and gynecology (98.3%), plastic surgery (91%), and oncology (87.7%). The fields of orthopedic surgery, occupational medicine, and emergency medicine are more balanced, with male-identifying individuals making up more than 40% of the workforce.
Race and Ethnicity Demographics
Over 80 percent of certified PAs are white, indicating a need for greater diversity in the profession. The NCCPA report notes that although the number of PAs has increased during the five years from 2018-2022, the overall racial/ethnic diversity of the profession has remained relatively consistent. In the latest survey, seven percent of PAs identified as Hispanic, up from 6.3% in 2018. Pediatrics has the greatest proportion of Hispanic PAs (11.9%), followed by geriatrics (9.9%) and primary care (9.3%).
There are 51 PAs per 100,000 people throughout the United States, with 93% of certified PAs working in urban areas. New York, California, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania are home to the most PAs. Meanwhile, Wyoming, Columbia, and Mississippi have the fewest.
With regard to the number of certified PAs proportionate to the population, Alaska, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut come out on top with more than 80 PAs per 100,000 people. In comparison, Mississippi has only 13 PAs per 100,000 people (however, it is noteworthy that the state has seen a 47% increase in PAs between 2018 and 2022).
In 2022, 8.6% of PAs reported they had served or are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Among the nearly 12,000 who reported that they have served, almost 20% are on active duty. Over half of the PAs with military experience served in the Army, followed by the Air Force and Navy. Occupational medicine is the most common specialty for PAs with an armed forces affiliation.
Languages Spoken Other than English
In 2022, 22.3% of PAs indicated they communicate with patients in a language other than English. Most of the PAs who communicate with patients in another language speak Spanish. Almost 4% of PAs said they speak two or more languages besides English.
Almost 5% of PAs have completed a postgraduate program (residency or fellowship). Postgraduate programs are more common in particular specialties; for example, more than 15% of critical care PAs and 10% of emergency medicine PAs have completed postgraduate training. Conversely, less than 3% of PAs working in internal medicine, gastroenterology, cardiology, pediatrics, and physical medicine have completed a postgraduate program.
Are You Ready to Become a Physician Assistant?
Demographics only tell part of the story of who becomes a PA. Successful PAs also share the following key characteristics (in addition to highly developed patient care skills and a firm grasp of medical science):
- Adaptability to quickly shift their focus from one issue to the next.
- Approachability to make patients feel comfortable.
- Calmness to avoid being overwhelmed in stressful situations.
- Collaborative mindset to work effectively on teams alongside doctors, specialists, nurses, therapists, and case managers.
- Communicativeness and the ability to translate complex medical terminology and explain conditions and treatment in layperson’s terms.
- Compassion to give patients confidence that they are in good hands.
- Curiosity to learn on the job and excel in new settings.
- Decisiveness and critical-thinking skills to assess a patient and prescribe treatment without consulting their attending physician.
- Diplomacy and strong interpersonal skills to comfortably treat patients from various backgrounds.
- Efficiency to operate well in intense, fast-paced environments.
- Emotional stability to engage patients who are angry, scared, ill, impaired by drugs, or otherwise not at their best.
- Humility to seek out help when it’s needed.
- Independence to be comfortable treating patients without oversight.
- Organization skills to keep patient records updated and error-free.
- Resilience to respond to constructive criticism by working toward improvement and looking at difficult patient encounters as opportunities to grow.
- Solution-oriented to focus on problem-solving and results when challenges arise.
How to Become a PA
The first step towards becoming a PA is to earn a bachelor’s degree and complete 500 hours of patient care experience. Relevant experience includes working as a nurse, paramedic, or medical assistant. Once you’ve gained that hands-on experience, you can apply to a PA program. PA programs typically also require students to have completed prerequisite science courses, either as part of their undergraduate studies or subsequently.
After obtaining your PA master’s degree, you must pass the PANCE to become a certified PA and apply for state licensure. Once licensed, you can work in various healthcare facilities and settings, including primary care, internal medicine specialties, and surgical specialties. Your daily responsibilities will include assessing patients, formulating diagnoses, and prescribing medications.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Hybrid PA program is a good option for students who want the flexibility to choose when and where they study. The program combines interactive online lectures with three in-person immersions and eight clinical placements in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences network of healthcare settings throughout the U.S. Courses are taught by top-tier faculty with decades of experience as certified PAs.