As a physician assistant, you will be in demand in almost every sector of the healthcare field, and you will be able to work in a number of different healthcare environments. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the employment rate for physician assistants is expected to grow by 39% over the next seven years, so finding employment in the specialty of your choice should be easy. Physician assistants occupied almost 75,000 of all jobs in the U.S. in 2008. Most physician assistants—more than 50% —work in doctors’ offices while the rest work in hospitals, outpatient healthcare centers, universities, and schools. A very small percentage of PAs are self-employed.
There is high demand for PAs in inner-cities and rural parts of the U.S. If you are flexible and don’t mind relocating to these areas—ones that struggle to draw practitioners of any kind—you will be welcomed. The states with large numbers of inner-cities and rural areas are the ones that seem to be broadening the physician assistant’s scope of practice, which would make working there all the more inviting.
A physician assistant’s salary depends on a number of factors: specialty, geographical location, and number of years in practice. However, salary generally ranges from $50,000 to $110,000 annually. Working in a field you love while also being rewarded with a competitive salary makes being a physician assistant an attractive career choice.
More than 50% of all employed PAs work in the offices of their supervising physicians. Having a PA in the practice allows a doctor to see more patients both in the office and in satellite offices in different towns, which helps the doctor and PA reach more people. This increases access to quality healthcare. Depending on the specialty, PAs perform all of the functions a doctor performs. In a private general or family practice the PA obtains a patient’s health history, performs a full body assessment, diagnoses any health issues, and prescribes treatment. The PA performs his or her duties under the supervision of the doctor, but not the literal supervision. The doctor may not even be present in the office on days the PA is scheduled to work. This is yet another benefit of hiring a PA; it frees up time for the doctor to either address personal needs outside the office or attend to the sicker patients in the practice. Other types of PAs (e.g., the ones in more specialized fields, such as surgical physician assistants) may have different, more detailed job duties. For example, surgical PAs work right alongside the surgeons for whom they work. They assist the surgeon in the operating room and make rounds on post-op patients in the hospital. The specialty in which a PA chooses to work will govern the specific roles the PA plays in the private practice setting.
The average annual salary for physician assistants working in private practice in the U.S. today is $77,970.
The next major employers of physician assistants in the U.S. are hospitals, which employ approximately 25% of all working PAs. Physician assistants can work in almost every department, but many work in the emergency department (ED). PAs can effectively triage the less acute patients, freeing up the surgeons and other physicians who can handle the more serious trauma patients coming through the doors. Many PAs today are hired in the “hospitalist” department of hospitals. A hospitalist is “a hospital-based general physician. Hospitalists assume the care of hospitalized patients in the place of patients’ primary care physician” (Medicine.net., 1999). A PA can work in this department and admit and care for patients on medical floors in conjunction with the patient’s private doctor. A PA in this type of position allows the doctor to remain in his or her office or at home so he or she can continue providing care to office patients or rest and be prepared to care for patients the next day. PAs who work in this capacity provide on-site care for patients and assess patients newly admitted to the hospital. PAs who work in hospitals can expect to work nights and weekends, to see patients during rounds early in the morning, and follow up with patients by phone. As with many who work in hospitals, PAs may also be expected to take “call” for certain departments and physicians. Salaries for hospital-based physician assistants range from $70,000 to $90,000 annually.
The need for physician assistants trained in geriatric medicine grows along with the aging population of the United States. As more people find it necessary to move into assisted living facilities, care centers are employing a vast array of health care practitioners some of whom are PAs. A number of studies have shown that having a PA as part of the interdisciplinary team in the long-term care setting improves quality of care received by patients. The AAPA website states 1% of all practicing PAs work with the geriatric population specifically. The generalist training and focus on patient relationships makes PAs especially useful in today’s assisted living facilities. Because of demands on their time, doctors’ visits to long term care centers must be directed to the acute and sickest patients; however, most clients in these facilities endure chronic illnesses such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and COPD. Having a physician assistant on staff allows immediate and continuous high quality health care for the patients. Their symptoms and/or complaints are addressed without delay by a qualified health care professional. Treatments can be administered expediently rather than having to wait for a doctor to come assess the patient and order the treatment. It is to be hoped that improving the quality of health care delivered at assisted living facilities improves the quality of life for the patients. The annual salary range for a physician assistant working as a member of an interdisciplinary team ranges from $70,000 to $80,000.
Urgent care refers to medical services provided at an outpatient clinic for the treatment of acute and chronic illnesses as well as injury. This includes emergency rooms in hospitals as well as urgent care and walk-in ambulatory centers. Because of their generalist training, physician assistants are well-qualified to work in these settings. While many of the patients visiting urgent care centers are there for an emergent issue, some people go to urgent care centers for routine, general health care needs. These clinics can perform routine lab work, physicals for school and work, vaccinations, and other diagnostic tests and laboratory services.
These facilities serve a valuable purpose within the healthcare realm because a physician assistant working at an urgent care center can discover a health concern for a patient and then, refer that patient on to a primary care doctor for further evaluation and treatment. Staffing an urgent care center primarily with physician assistants is cost effective as well. While PAs earn competitive salaries, it is less expensive to use PAs than hire a staff of physicians to run the clinic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for PAs working in outpatient care centers is $84,390.
Palliative care, not to be confused with Hospice Care, is the medical specialty aimed at improving the quality of life of those with a serious life-limiting illness. Palliative care can be initiated at the time of diagnosis and continued throughout the treatment phase. As a member of the patient’s healthcare team, the physician assistant will help with diagnosis and treatment but may also have the following duties: maintaining close, open communication among team members, the patient, and the patient’s family, managing the patient’s pain and other symptoms; helping the patient and his or her family work within the health care system; providing assistance and guidance with intricate treatment options; and providing emotional support for the patient and patient’s family. These roles were once solely performed by a patient’s primary care doctor, but now, physician assistants can assume these roles and lessen the burden of the physician in charge.
Physician assistants working in palliative care should receive extra training in end-of-life care and issues. It takes compassion and understanding and good communication skills to work in this field. The palliative care physician assistant must be comfortable working on a team and involving patients and their family members in health care decisions. The median annual salary for PAs in this specialty is $90,000.