What is a Physician Assistant?

The work of a physician assistant is quite similar to that of a general internist or doctor—they diagnose illnesses, develop and carry out treatment plans, help with surgeries, perform procedures and guide patients. However, they are required by law to practice under the watchful eye of a licensed physician or surgeon. Normally, this type of supervision is more along the lines of a collaboration, but there are certain regulations that can make their lives—and the lives of their patients—difficult. As an example, a physician assistant can write a prescription for morphine but can’t prescribe a diabetic patient diabetic shoes.

However, the profession is full of rewards that can often come from helping and treating patients. A study by the AAPA in 2015 showed that over 96% would often recommend their physician assistant career to others as well. That’s a good thing, as the United States is experiencing a shortage of health care professionals, and physician assistants—who are often cost-effective alternatives to general internists—are needed in order to pick up some of the slack. From 2012 to 2022, the BLS estimates that the field will grow at a rate of 38.4 percent, which will create 33,300 new jobs for physician assistants.

As far as training is concerned, a lot of professionals already have a bachelor’s degree or at least some experience as a registered nurse, EMT or paramedic, when they begin taking physician assistant training. After the training, those hopefuls will also need to apply to an accredited physician assistant program. These types of master’s degree programs typically take 28 months to finish and include both coursework as well as supervised clinical work.

Graduates will then have to take and pass a certification exam which is offered through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. What’s more—all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia require licensure, which can be received by passing the exam and paying for a state-specific license. In order to maintain certification, physician assistants have to pass a recertifying exam every 10 years.

In terms of salary, physician assistants generally make a median income of $95,820 in 2014. The 25th percentile averaged $82,090 while the 75th ranged in the area of $114,760.

So as you can see, there’s a lot more to being a physician’s assistant than simply just assisting someone else. They work hard to get where they want to be, and often have a great medical and educational foundation prior to starting on the road to becoming a physician assistant. So next time you’re dealing with one, perhaps this knowledge will bring about more of an appreciation for the work they do to get where they want to be. They aren’t simply helpers; they can perform some of the same duties and tasks as regular doctors can.