A doctor holds a stethoscope against the chest of a child

A physicians assistant could...


Suture a child's knee wound after a bad fall from her skateboard. Stitches hold a cut closed on a patients knee Prevent disease outbreaks after a natural disaster by working as part of a mobile health clinic. Eight medical staff in front of two mobile clinics
Determine when a broken arm is mended and the cast may be removed. A doctor saws a cast off a child's arm Order a chest x-ray to check for pneumonia, and interpret its results. X-ray image of lungs in a chest
Find out more...

Key Facts & Information

Overview Would you like to sew up a bad cut after fall? Order and interpret X-rays? Help with surgery? Conduct physicals? Prescribe medications? Physician assistants have many of the same duties as physicians, only they practice medicine under the supervision of a physician or a surgeon. In rural or inner-city areas, physician assistants might have considerable independence, since they might be the only healthcare provider available to these communities. Physician assistants can choose to study specialties, too, just like physicians, and work in surgery, pediatrics, emergency medicine, orthopedics, or other health specialties.
Key Requirements Caring, observant, outgoing, patient, calm in an emergency, emotionally and physically strong, with outstanding communication skills
Minimum Degree Master's degree
Subjects to Study in High School Biology, chemistry, physics, geometry, algebra II, pre-calculus; if available, physiology, biomedical science
Median Salary
Physician Assistant
  $101,480
U.S. Mean Annual Wage
  $49,630
Min Wage
  $15,080
$0
$10,000
$20,000
$30,000
$40,000
$50,000
$60,000
$70,000
$80,000
$90,000
$100,000
$110,000
$120,000
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024) Much Faster than Average (21% or more) In Demand!
Interview
  • Read this interview with Atul to see what he likes best about being a physician assistant.
  • Read "A Day in the Life of a PA" Interview Series where we highlight PAs who work in a variety of clinical practice settings.
  • In this video interview, you'll meet Toral Balakrishnan, a physician assistant who works with a cosmetic surgeon.
Related Occupations
Source: O*Net

Training, Other Qualifications

Requirements for admission to training programs vary; most applicants have a college degree and some health-related work experience. Commonly, nurses, EMTs, lab technicians, and paramedics apply to physician assistant programs. All states require physician assistants to complete an accredited, formal education program and pass a national exam to obtain a license.

Education and Training

Physician assistant educational programs usually take at least 2 years to complete for full-time students. Most programs are at schools of allied health, academic health centers, medical schools, or 4-year colleges; a few are at community colleges, are part of the military, or are at hospitals. Many accredited PA programs have clinical teaching affiliations with medical schools.

In 2008, 142 education programs for physician assistants were accredited or provisionally accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Eighty percent, or 113, of these programs offered the option of a master's degree, 21 of them offered a bachelor's degree, three awarded associate degrees, and five awarded a certificate.

Most applicants to PA educational programs already have a college degree and some health-related work experience; however, admissions requirements vary from program to program. Many PAs have prior experience as registered nurses, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics.

PA education includes classroom and laboratory instruction in subjects like biochemistry, pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical pharmacology, clinical medicine, physical diagnosis, and medical ethics. PA programs also include supervised clinical training in several areas, including family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, prenatal care and gynecology, geriatrics, emergency medicine, and pediatrics. Sometimes, PA students serve in one or more of these areas under the supervision of a physician who is seeking to hire a PA. The rotation may lead to permanent employment in one of the areas where the student works.

Other Qualifications

Physician assistants must have a desire to serve patients and be self-motivated. PAs also must have a good bedside manner, emotional stability, and the ability to make decisions in emergencies. Physician assistants should have an enthusiasm for lifelong learning, because their eligibility to practice depends on continuing education.

Nature of the Work

Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They should not be confused with medical assistants, who perform routine clinical and clerical tasks. PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive healthcare services, as delegated by a physician. Working as members of a healthcare team, they take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X-rays, and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries by suturing, splinting, and casting. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy. Physician assistants also may prescribe certain medications. In some establishments, a PA is responsible for managerial duties, such as ordering medical supplies or equipment and supervising medical technicians and assistants.

Watch this video to meet Jennifer Fritz, a physician assistant student at Pennsylvania College of Technology, where she learns how to suture wounds, perform CPR, intubate patients, perform physical exams, and prescribe medications.

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician. However, PAs may be the principal care providers in rural or inner-city clinics where a physician is present for only 1 or 2 days each week. In such cases, the PA confers with the supervising physician and other medical professionals as needed and as required by law. PAs also may make house calls or go to hospitals and nursing care facilities to check on patients, after which they report back to the physician.

The duties of physician assistants are determined by the supervising physician and by state law. Aspiring PAs should investigate the laws and regulations in the states in which they wish to practice.

Many PAs work in primary care specialties, such as general internal medicine, pediatrics, and family medicine. Other specialty areas include general and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics. PAs specializing in surgery provide preoperative and postoperative care and may work as first or second assistants during major surgery.

Work Environment

Although PAs usually work in a comfortable, well-lit environment, those in surgery often stand for long periods. At times, the job requires a considerable amount of walking.

PA's work schedules may vary according to the practice setting and often depend on the hours of the supervising physician. The workweek of hospital-based PAs may include weekends, nights, or early morning hospital rounds to visit patients. These workers also may be on call. PAs in clinics usually work about a 40-hour week.

On the Job

  • Examine patients to obtain information about their physical condition.
  • Interpret diagnostic test results for deviations from normal.
  • Obtain, compile and record patient medical data, including health history, progress notes and results of physical examination.
  • Make tentative diagnoses and decisions about management and treatment of patients.
  • Prescribe therapy or medication with physician approval.
  • Administer or order diagnostic tests, such as x-ray, electrocardiogram, and laboratory tests.
  • Perform therapeutic procedures, such as injections, immunizations, suturing and wound care, and infection management.
  • Instruct and counsel patients about prescribed therapeutic regimens, normal growth and development, family planning, emotional problems of daily living, and health maintenance.
  • Provide physicians with assistance during surgery or complicated medical procedures.
  • Visit and observe patients on hospital rounds or house calls, updating charts, ordering therapy, and reporting back to physician.
  • Supervise and coordinate activities of technicians and technical assistants.
  • Order medical and laboratory supplies and equipment.

Source: BLS

Companies That Hire Physician Assistants

Explore what you might do on the job with one of these projects...

Science Fair Project Idea
You might know that your body needs oxygen to keep going, and that you breathe out carbon dioxide as waste. What happens when you exercise? You have probably noticed that you breathe faster, and your heart beats faster. What triggers your body to respond in this way? How does it "rev up" to keep your muscles going? In this project, you will get a peek into the fascinating science of exercise physiology and find out—with the help of a color changing reaction and Google's Science… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
"Use it or lose it!" Sure, we all know physical exercise is important to keeping our bodies fit. But how important is physical exercise to your brain? In other words, is there any connection between an active body and increased brain power? This is an easy project where you can test the effect of exercise on a critical brain function: memory. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Are you a piano player or a video gamer? Then you might have a quick reaction time that can come in handy while playing sports. Find out how to measure your reaction time and compare it to your friends and family with this fun experiment. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Ahchoo! Got that stuffy nose and I-can't-breathe kind of cold? Those sniffles and clogged sinuses are bad enough, but why does it also seem everything tastes so bland and flavorless when we are sick? Is there really truth to the idea that smell is a key part of taste? Gather up a few volunteers, hit the kitchen, and try this experiment to find out. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Have you ever had to adjust to a new time zone and noticed that it takes a while before you start to feel normal again? By shifting your sleep and activity schedule, you have altered the pattern of your body's circadian rhythms. Human beings, like many other living things, have a number of internal processes that show a distinct circadian rhythm. The most obvious is our sleep cycle, with activity during the day, followed by sleep during the night. Circadian rhythms have also been demonstrated… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Our metabolism changes as we get older, a sad fact of life that we cannot change. Old age affects our bodies in many ways. Changes in musculature, bone strength, energy, diet and breathing are some of the many ways we change as we age. You might notice that people often get out of breath when they are older and doing a physical activity. Why do some people feel out of breath, while others do not? Does this change correlate with age? Could this reflect a difference in lung capacity between… Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Tilt-A-Whirls, Merry-Go-Rounds, Spinning Tea Cups...does just the thought of them make you dizzy? Why should something so fun make our heads spin so long even after the ride has stopped? Learn about spins, turns, and the mixed signals that fire in our brains when the sensation of dizziness takes over. Weak stomachs, beware. This project has tests that will make your head spin! Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
Physical activity is needed for maintaining normal bone strength and mass. Can physical stress on finger bones during development lead to an increase in finger length? Check out this project to see how violin players are an example of a "natural experiment" that you can use to answer this question. Read more
Science Fair Project Idea
One thing that all living things have in common is that they grow through cell division. How is this growth regulated? Sometimes growth occurs when it is not supposed to, leading to cancer. Scientists are trying to discover how growth is regulated, hoping to find potential cures for cancer. One idea is that cells keep track of growth using special regions of the chromosome called "telomeres" that count how many divisions a cell has made. If this is true, then growth, cell division and age are… Read more

Ask Questions

Do you have a specific question about a career as a Physician Assistant that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.

Additional Information

Sources

Free science fair projects.