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What Does a Physician Assistant Do?

Physician assistants require a significant amount of formal education. Learn about the degree programs, job duties and licensure requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

Physician assistants assist doctors in their day-to-day practice and serve multiple functions depending on where they work. In many ways they bridge the gap between nurse and doctor, performing the functions of both to some degree.

Essential Information

Physician assistants (PAs) work closely with doctors and handle duties that range from taking medical histories to setting simple fractures. They are allowed to prescribe medications in some states. Many PAs specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as pediatrics. A master's degree is required, and all states require that PAs be licensed. Licensing requires passing a multiple-choice exam and completing continuing education courses to keep knowledge current.

Required Education Master's degree from an accredited physician assistant program
Other Requirements State licensure
Projected Job Growth 30% from 2014-2024*
Median Salary $98,180 (2015)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Physician Assistant Job Duties

Physician assistants examine, diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of licensed physician. PAs can prepare casts or splints, suture small wounds and interpret medical tests. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), these medically-trained professionals can also prescribe medications (www.aapa.org).

Some PAs specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as emergency care or geriatrics, and can assist doctors in advanced medical techniques and procedures. Physician assistants are often the first line of medical care in rural and underserved areas. In some cases, a physician assistant will refer the patient to a medical doctor or make arrangements for transferring the patient to a hospital or clinic.

Career Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employment of physician assistants is expected to increase by 30% during the 2014-2024 decade (www.bls.gov). As of May 2015, the median annual salary of a physician assistant was $98,180 according to the BLS, with most earning between $62,760 and $139,540. The APPA estimates that there are approximately 94,400 certified PAs in the United States, as of 2014.

Physician Assistant Licensure

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) administers the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which all graduates of physician assisting degree programs must take before beginning to practice (www.nccpa.net). The PANCE is a multiple-choice test that covers medical knowledge.

Once a candidate has successfully passed the exam, they must complete at least 100 hours in continuing education courses every two years to keep the national license current. Each state has their own continuing education requirements, according to the AAPA. A physician assistant must take a recertification exam six years after initial licensure.

Physician assistants examine and diagnose patients, and are allowed to prescribe medicine. They need a master's degree and a state license to practice. Jobs for PAs are expected to grow at a rapid rate over the next few years, and the median salary was about $98,000 in 2015.

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