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So, You Think You Want to Be a Physician Assistant

A physician assistant (PA) is a well-educated healthcare professional who is nationally certified and licensed by the state in which he or she practices. The PA practices medicine under the supervision of a physician. A physician assistant can have a large degree of autonomy, depending on his or her experience and the doctor’s willingness to delegate.

PAs prevent, diagnose, and treat illness and injury by providing many healthcare services, including the following:

  • Conducting physical exams

  • Ordering and interpreting tests

  • Counseling people on preventive healthcare

  • Assisting in surgery

  • Writing prescriptions

If you see the letters PA after a person’s name, that means physician assistant.

Train to become a Physician Assistant

To become a PA, you must pass the PANCE. But first, you need to get an education through an accredited PA program. Currently, the United States has more than 160 such programs. The program at Duke University in North Carolina is probably best known because the nation’s first PAs were trained at and graduated from Duke.

PA training at the graduate level takes 2 to 3 years and involves a combination of classroom studies and clinical rotations. Admissions departments are selective, and for many programs, your GRE score must be relatively high. If you survived PA education and training, you’re more than capable of acing the PANCE!

What you do when you’re a Physician Assistant

After you’re certified as a physician assistant, you have to fulfill some legal requirements, keep up with medical developments, and celebrate your profession, all the while treating patients. Here’s a quick list of things to do:

  • Get a license.

  • Get a job as a physician assistant and put all your training to good use caring for patients.

  • Get professional liability insurance.

  • Register with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as needed.

  • If you’re in the United States, join the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

  • Earn and report 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) hours every 2 years. You can obtain CME hours by attending seminars, journal reading, and online study. Many PAs choose to attend a conference to obtain most or all of their CME credits.

  • Celebrate National Physician Assistant Week on October 6 through October 12. October 6 is the day the first PA class graduated at Duke University and just happens to be the birthday of Dr. Eugene Stead, creator of the PA program.

  • Reregister your certificate with NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants) every 2 years.

  • Take the PANRE after 6 years (or 10 years starting in 2014).

Employers often pay for the PA’s professional liability insurance, registration fees with the DEA, state licensing fees, and credentialing fees.

Size up your PA prospects

So after you’ve gone through years of training and hours of testing, will you be able to find a job? Yes, most likely. Will it pay well? Yes, relatively so. Given that most PA programs in colleges and universities charge pretty high tuition, you’ll need a good job.

In its 2010 census report, the American Academy of Physician Assistants reported that the median income for PAs ranged from $85,000 to $101,000. Income varies depending on experience, specialty, practice setting, and location.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates the following:

  • Employment of PAs is expected to grow by 39 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations.

  • More PAs will provide primary care and assist with medical and surgical procedures because PAs are “cost-effective and productive members of the healthcare team.” Cost containment is likely to be a factor. States will continue to expand the PA’s scope of practice by allowing them to perform more procedures.

  • Besides working in traditional office-based settings, PAs should find a growing number of jobs in hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics, and prisons. Job opportunities should also be good in rural and inner-city healthcare facilities.

These days, a physician in private practice can’t function without a PA or a nurse practitioner (NP), and the ever-increasing healthcare demands of public institutions, hospitals, and clinics should ensure job security.

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