How to Become a Physician Assistant

A Physician Assistant works under the supervision of a physician and provides medical care to patients. Most physician assistants provide primary care, which includes the practice areas of family medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine. However, a PA can go into other areas of practice, such as emergency medicine and geriatrics. A physician assistant who chooses to go the surgical route is entrusted with pre and post-operative duties while also assisting physicians during the actual surgery. Physician assistants do not have the same authority as a doctor, although they do have more authority than nurses.

In some areas, mostly rural, physician assistants provide primary care for a good portion of a week. However, physician assistants are still required by law to confer with their supervising physicians and do not have autonomy. In some instances, physician assistants make house calls and even see patients in nursing homes. Once that is completed, they are required to report their findings back to their supervising physician.

The hours logged by a physician assistant are intended to reflect the hours that their supervising physician works over the course of a week. This profession does not provide the autonomy for them to work with free reign. There are also individual state laws which are very specific on the duties that are allowed to be carried out by a PA. There are many different work settings as a physician assistant finds employment in hospitals, clinics, private practices and other healthcare facilities.

Salary/Job Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an average salary of $102,090 annually for a physician assistant. The state of Nevada features the highest annual salary for a physician assistant at $128,370 per year. Connecticut, North Dakota, Vermont and Washington follow in that order, with salaries that ranged from $113,000 per year to more than $116,000 annually. The state of New York is home to the highest number of physician assistants, with a population totaling 12,080. California is next in line with 10,090 physician assistants followed by Texas (6,650) and Pennsylvania (5,550).

There has been a continual increase in new physician assistant positions as the profession is growing at a much faster rate than many other jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 30% increase in the number of physician assistants throughout the United States by the year 2024. There are currently about seven times as many physicians as there are physician assistants. With the healthcare field growing at such a rapid pace, that is calling for a greater demand among physicians. To meet that demand, more physician assistant positions are opening up and creating new jobs every day across the country. The position was not created until the 1960s and is in demand now more than it has ever been during its relatively short history.

Physician Assistant Education

Those looking to pursue a career as a physician assistant need to first earn a bachelor’s degree. There is no specific undergraduate major required, although there is a need to complete science courses in anatomy, microbiology, physiology, in addition to others. It is also important to gather a well-rounded collection of subject areas as this will help immensely when playing to a post-graduate PA program. Since it is a competitive field, it is important to achieve good grades at the undergraduate level.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, students must then be accepted into a Physician Assistant Program, which concludes with the awarding of a Master’s Degree in Science. However, the coursework extends beyond that of a typical master’s program. These programs require two and sometimes even three years of education, combining the classroom and clinical experience. The classroom portion of the PA education builds a foundation of scientific knowledge to prepare students for the clinical portion of the program.

The second portion of the program exposes students to clinical rotations in an actual hospital setting. Most programs have a 2,000 hour minimum requirement when it comes to the clinical aspect. There are even some programs that offer internships as a way of sufficing those hours.

All of that education is geared towards preparing prospective physician assistants for the PA National Certifying Examination (PANCE). This examination is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

This post graduate education must be completed in order to qualify candidates to take the PANCE. That examination is five hours in duration and consists of 300 multiple choice questions. The test can be retaken if a passing score is not earned. However, testing opportunities are limited to six tries over a six-year interval and if all of those attempts are unsuccessful, the PA educational requirements must be completed a second time before being granted permission to take the PANCE again.

Physician Assistant Licensing/Certification

Physician assistants must obtain a license prior to working for a physician. Those licensing requirements are determined by each individual state. Most states require an application, fee and copies of all college transcripts. The scores from their NCCPA exam should also be forwarded to the state licensing board or committee. The processing of a license does not happen overnight and could take anywhere from one to two months.

Physician assistants also need complete continuing education credits to maintain their license. This requirement also consists of passing a rectification exam, which is required every 10 years. Physician assistants must log 100 online credit hours every five years. There is also a need to earn a passing score on a PANCE recertification exam within six years of starting out as a PA.


National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants

This website features a comprehensive explanation of the required certifications that a physician assistant needs to attain and maintain.

American Academy of Physician Assistants

This association was founded in 1968 as a way of promoting and advocating for physician assistants.

Society of Emergency Physician Assistants

This society offers a wealth of resources in practice management, education and advancing the role of emergency physician assistants.

American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants

This organization is a means of information and support for surgical physician assistants throughout the country.