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The Career Opportunity of a Physician's Assistant

Aug 17, 2007
Off to college with you! Your parents always wanted to brag about their offspring's going to medical school, and now they get their chance! But the medical field, being as vast as it is, gives you so much choice that narrowing down your ambitions to a specific field takes a lot of deep thought. One career path that many medical school students are finding their easiest path is the physician assistant, known as PA for short.

In the first place, if you're looking for financial benefit look no further than Money magazine: they rate PAs as number thirty out of the top fifty jobs! For starters, it's the fastest-growing field, with an incredible 49.65% growth, outpacing even - Saints preserve us! - a software engineer at number two. And you didn't want to spend your days in a boring cubicle writing computer programs all day anyway, right? Total jobs for PAs in 2004 were 61,963; the expected demand in 2014 is estimated to be 92,726.

The average pay, while not exactly a lottery jackpot, is a tidy $75,117/year, and the estimated top salary is a tidier $93,474/year. Consider also that you get a benefits package and a ton of perks: PAs are needed everywhere that there's a doctor or a hospital, so you can work anywhere in the world.

According to the 2005 census from the American Academy of Physician Assistants, just over 56 percent of PAs worked in the offices and clinics of physicians, and 36 percent were employed by hospitals. The remaining 8 percent are divided among public health clinics, nursing homes, schools, prisons, home health care agencies, and the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. About 17 percent of all PAs provide health care to rural communities with fewer than 20,000 residents, in which physicians may be in limited supply. Work as a PA, and your travel ticket is yours to write!

The education requirements are much lighter than that of a physician proper. As of 2006, there are more than 130 accredited PA programs in existence in the United States. They are all accredited by a single governing body: the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). A majority of them are master's degree programs for one of MS, MPAS, or MHS, but some are available for an undergraduate major. Some of these undergraduate programs are making a transition to graduate level training, so ask around about changing requirements. The certification is also done by one single certifying body, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). So your direction as a physician's assistant is clear!

PAs practice medicine, perform medical histories and examinations, order treatments, interpret diagnostic tests, diagnose acute and chronic illnesses, prescribe medication, perform invasive and noninvasive procedures, refer patients to specialists when it's appropriate and provide first assistance in surgery. The education of a physician assistant is a mostly generalist approach, modeled after the medical school curriculum. PAs may practice in general medicine, medical specialty, or surgical specialty. Flexibility is another huge career perk. Due to their broad-based medical education, PA's can change specialties and have the ability to work throughout their career in different specialties. The one unbreakable rule is that PAs must always work under the supervision of a physician.

Hopefully, working under supervision won't mean having a nitpicker looking over your shoulder every minute of the day. That's about the worst that can happen to you in this line of work, but it's bound to be a rare thing. After all, the whole point is that you're there to help a physician; by definition they are too busy to see to everything themselves.

The flexibility of this career ensures that you can go where you want and do what interests you. You can go on into specialties and subspecialties as your tastes permit. You can "inherit" a specialty from any physician you're working under. Because your duties are lighter, you can continue your education while you work. And you are almost guaranteed to be a able to find work, so you're not likely to be stuck someplace that you've decided isn't to your liking.

At the same time, this isn't to be looked down upon as a 'candy striper' type of job. As a physician assistant, you are practicing real medicine. You're present in the clinic, the ER, the maternity ward, the private practice office, and the surgery. You get to make the diagnosis and prescribe the treatment, putting your training and skills to good use. In fact, this is known as a medium-difficult job. You will find challenges in this field and never have a chance to become bored.

Of course, we should consider the community. The AAPA (the American Academy of Physician Assistants) maintains an expansive website, with news, information, certification assistance, job info, and tons of databases. Forums and clubs for physician assistants are never hard to find, both on the Internet and in large cities. PAs, having the flexibility to swim with the current, really get around and get a wide range of experiences. As compared to a physician, who is more likely to be required to stay put for most of their career, a group of physician assistants is more likely to contain the one person who knows more about what's really going on.

Historically, physician assistants have been dispatched to the battlefield. The first physician assistants started in the Vietnam war - and yes, since you asked, M*A*S*H is still a favorite TV show in the culture. But signing up for military duty as a physician assistant is an excellent way to live the war without being on the front lines. As the military saying goes, you'll be "in the rear with the gear", providing your essential services right where they're needed most. This is another example of how a physician assistant career can mix and match with any secondary ambition you might have. The only real downside of the career is the comparative salary of a physician assistant to a physician, but consider that you have a much smaller personal investment in it and can always continue your education on the job to branch to a full physician.
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