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Physician Assistant: Summary of How to Become a Physician's Assistant

Learn how to become a physician assistant. Research the job description and education and licensing requirements, and find out how to start a career in physician assistance.

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Should I Become a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants (PA) work alongside doctors and surgeons, examining patients, analyzing medical test results and treating minor injuries under the supervision of licensed medical professionals. They also might manage inventory, supervise medical technicians and prescribe medication.

Empathy is required when working with patients who might be nervous, in pain or not feeling well. Additionally, PAs' work can be physically demanding, with some spending hours on their feet each day. Also, depending on their place of employment, PAs might be required to work nights, weekends and/or holidays. Working in a medical environment can be very stressful at times, but it can also be very rewarding to help people improve their health and quality of life.

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Career Requirements

Degree Level A master's degree is typically required
Degree Field Physician assistant
Licensure and Certification A license is necessary in all states; must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination
Key Skills Compassionate, attentive to details and able to handle consistent stress; knowledgeable of ChartWare and electronic medical record software, as well as videoconferencing and spreadsheet programs; dexterity with medical devices, such as central venous catheters, head or neck traction devices, spirometers and surgical tools; stamina
Salary (2014) $95,820 annually (median salary for all physician assistants)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Qualify for a Physician Assistant Program

Physician assistants are required to complete formal education programs approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Admission into such programs typically requires a bachelor's degree or some college education and three years of healthcare experience, such as in nursing or emergency medical service positions. Admission requirements vary by program, so prospective physician assistants may want to contact potential schools directly.

Step 2: Complete an Accredited Program

Medical schools, healthcare centers and colleges usually offer physician assistant programs. While associate's and bachelor's programs are available, most physician assistant programs result in 2-year master's degrees. Curricula consist of medical instruction in the classroom, laboratory and clinic. Course topics may include anatomy, physiology, patient assessment, diagnostics and pharmacology. Students gain supervised, hands-on experience in the final year of study through clinical rotations.

Success Tip:

  • Learn stress-management techniques. Physician assistants must be equipped to handle the stress of working in the medical profession. Clinical requirements allow aspiring physician assistants to experience the sometimes high-pressure environments of emergency medicine or surgery and become comfortable in these settings.

Step 3: Become Licensed

All states require physician assistants to be licensed to practice in the profession. Every candidate must graduate from an ARC-PA-accredited degree program and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), the PANCE is a multiple-choice exam that covers medical and surgical fundamentals. Those who pass may use the Physician Assistant - Certified (PA-C) designation.

PA-Cs maintain the credential by earning 100 approved continuing medical education credits every two years. They're also required to pass the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam every six years.

Step 4: Advance in the Field

Experienced physician assistants looking to advance in the field should consider becoming specialists. Physician assistants can choose to practice in a medical specialization such as internal medicine, emergency care, surgery, urology or pediatrics. To become specialists, physician assistants must complete accredited postgraduate programs and obtain specialty certification from the NCCPA. Specialty certification applicants need to have PA-C certification and 1-2 years of assisting and specialty experience. Eligible candidates may then sit for the required exam. Physician assistant specialists may renew their certification every six years under the condition that they also maintain PA-C certification.

Physician assistants who gain several years of experience may be granted opportunities for better pay and more responsibilities, such as supervising and guiding less experienced PAs.

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