A step-by-step guide to becoming a physician assistant

Last updated: July 22, 2024
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A step-by-step guide to becoming a physician assistant
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Physician assistants work under the supervision of doctors. They have a long list of duties, including patient diagnosis and treatment.

This is an in-demand profession with an expected job growth rate of 28% from 2021 to 2031.

If you want a role in the healthcare industry, this could be the career for you. You'll get a fast-paced job with plenty of opportunities for advancement.

Not sure if this job would be a good fit? In this guide, you'll learn about the daily duties and the top skills you'll need to be a physician assistant. We'll also tell you how to kick off your career and share salary insights.

Read on for everything you need to know about becoming a physician assistant.

What is a physician assistant?

Physician assistants work in the healthcare field. You'll find them in a range of medical settings, including physician's offices, hospitals, urgent care clinics, and outpatient facilities. Some physician assistants visit patients in their homes.

Physician assistants can do many of the same tasks as a doctor, but they do work under the supervision of a physician. Some of the top daily duties include examining patients, reviewing files, and diagnosing illnesses and injuries.

Physician assistants can also order tests, including urine samples, blood tests, x-rays, and CT scans.

These healthcare professionals can prescribe and administer medications. Additionally, they can treat broken bones, wounds, and other injuries. Physician assistants educate patients and their families so they can look after themselves at home.

Physician assistants keep accurate patient files and report to the supervising physician. They may refer patients to specialists if required.

Most physician assistants work full time. The hours can vary, and there can be evening, weekend, and holiday shifts. Some physician assistants work on call.

What's the difference between a physician assistant and a medical assistant?

Physical assistants and medical assistants both support doctors and healthcare teams. However, the two roles aren't quite the same.

So, what's the difference? We know physician assistants can diagnose and treat patients. On the other hand, a medical assistant's role is mostly administrative.

Common daily duties for a medical assistant include scheduling appointments, getting exam rooms ready, helping with insurance claims, and updating patient records. They can also support doctors during examinations and prepare samples.

Medical assistants can provide basic care to patients. For example, they may weigh patients and check their vital signs.

Physician assistants have more responsibility and higher education requirements than medical assistants. To become a physician assistant, you'll need to complete a bachelor's degree and a physician assistant program.

Most medical assistants have a certificate or associate degree. Sometimes, they continue their studies to become physician assistants.

How much does a physician assistant make?

You can expect a competitive salary if you get a job as a physician assistant. Your wage can vary depending on a range of factors, including your experience, skills, and location.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a physician assistant in the US is $121,530 per year.

Those working in outpatient care centers have the highest median salary at $128,430 per year. Hospitals are similar, where the average annual salary is $127,240. And if you work in a physician's office, the average salary is $121,010.

If you become a physician assistant, how much you earn will depend on where you live. Rhode Island is the highest-paying state for physician assistants, with an average yearly salary of $146,880. Alaska PAs are also well paid, with an average salary of $145,830 per year.

In Connecticut, you can make around $141,790 per year, and in New Jersey, it's $140,080.

If you live in New Hampshire, you can expect to make $137,330 per year. That is slightly less than some of the highest-paying states, but you also might have a lower cost of living.

How to become a physician assistant

Want a career in medicine? Consider a role as a licensed physician assistant. Here's a rundown of the steps you'll need to take:

1. Prepare yourself

The first step is to be prepared. You'll need a few essentials to start your journey, including a high school diploma or equivalent.

After high school, you’ll apply for an undergraduate degree, and universities and colleges have specific admission requirements. You can check with your local educational institution to learn about minimum grade point average (GPA) scores so you know what GPA you’ll need to get into a degree program.

In most states, the minimum age to enter a degree program is either 18 or 21 years old, so you'll need to tick this box, too.

If you have any healthcare experience, that'll be an advantage. For example, if you've ever worked as a medical secretary, emergency medical technician (EMT), or medical assistant, that experience will help prepare you for this role.

The road to becoming a physician assistant will require years of commitment. Do your research, and speak to others in the field. It's important to make sure this is the right career for you before you dive in.

2. Complete a bachelor's degree

Next, you'll need to complete a bachelor's degree. When it comes to undergraduate degree programs, you have a few options.

As long as your course is related to health or science and gives you patient care experience, it'll set you on the right path.

What topics should you look for? Think anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and biology. And make sure you choose an accredited university or college. If you need support choosing a pathway, you can speak to a course advisor.

You can expect your bachelor's degree to take around four years to complete. Some students choose to study part-time while they work, which can lengthen the timeline.

3. Get experience

Before you can continue your medical education, you'll need to get some experience. Requirements can vary, but you should aim to get at least 200 hours of experience in patient care.

Try to find work in a clinical setting where you can support healthcare teams. This can be anything from emergency medicine to family medicine. There are a wide variety of options, and your choices will depend on your qualifications.

Your clinical experience doesn't have to come from paid work. You can also boost your hours by working as a volunteer.

While you build up your hours, get to know others in the healthcare field. Any connections you make might help you find a job in the future.

4. Enroll in a physician assistant program

Once you've got enough experience, you'll need to enroll in a physician assistant training program. Gaining entry can be competitive, and you'll usually need to pass an interview. You may also need a letter of recommendation.

Once again, make sure you choose an accredited PA program. Your options will depend on where you live and whether you're prepared to move.

Physician assistant school takes around two years to complete. During this period, you'll also need to complete 12 months of clinical placement.

By the time you graduate, you'll have both theoretical knowledge and hands-on patient care experience.

5. Pass a licensing exam

Once you've completed your physician assistant studies program, you'll need to get through one more stage.

Physician assistants need to pass an exam to get a certification. The most common one is the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

You'll need to pay an application fee and make an appointment with a testing center. The licensure requirements may vary depending on your location, but you can expect a multiple-choice test.

When you pass, you'll be able to use the PA-C designation. This stands for "physician assistant-certified." If you don't hit the mark the first time, you may be able to retake the test at a later date.

You'll usually need to renew your license once a year to keep it active.

6. Start work

When you get to this step, you'll have completed work experience, finished your graduate program, and met your certification requirements.

Now, it's time to start work. You can start your job search by browsing physician assistant positions on our job board.

Your local hospital or physician's office may also have jobs advertised. Make sure you update your resume and cover letter before you start your job hunt, and customize them to each job you apply to.

The application process can include multiple interviews. You'll also need to pass a criminal background check and drug test.

Remember to keep building your professional network and continue learning to keep your skills up to date.

What skills do you need to be a physician assistant?

You'll need a few key skills to work as a physician assistant. Here are the top five:

  1. Communication skills

As a PA, you'll be providing direct patient care. To be successful, you'll need excellent communication skills.

Patients can be nervous or in pain, and you'll need to make them feel comfortable. A good bedside manner will put both patients and their families at ease. You should be confident, well-spoken, and a good listener.

Physician assistants may have language barriers to overcome, and they need to be able to communicate with patients of all ages. As such, positive body language is essential.

Physician assistants also need to communicate with other healthcare providers both verbally and in writing.

  1. Attention to detail

Anyone working in the medical field needs attention to detail. Because physician assistants are responsible for diagnosing and treating patients, they can't afford to make mistakes.

For example, if a physician assistant prescribes the wrong medication or treatment, that can negatively impact a patient's health.

Physician assistants need to keep clear records and update patient files. The information can be shared between healthcare professionals, so accuracy is essential.

Attention to detail is a soft skill that you may have gained from other roles. To improve this skill, slow down, try not to multitask, and double-check your work.

  1. Medical knowledge

By the time you start work as a physician assistant, you'll have medical knowledge. This is an essential skill, as patients will rely on you to have a thorough understanding of how the body works so you can help them with their health challenges.

Medical knowledge is a skill you'll need to keep working on, as there's always something new to learn. For example, you should know about different medical conditions, how to perform physical exams, and common medication side effects. Surgical knowledge will also be beneficial.

A good PA will understand medical terminology and know how to translate any jargon in a way that makes sense to their patients.

  1. Compassion

Compassion is another essential skill for every medical professional.

Patients have appointments for a range of reasons, and they need a primary care provider who's kind and empathetic. For example, a patient may have cancer, a mental illness, or heart disease.

Physician assistants deal with sensitive information, and they shouldn't judge their patients. For example, if a patient is overweight or has a drug dependency or sexually transmitted infection (STI), the physician assistant should be understanding and approachable not judgemental.

  1. Problem-solving skills

Finally, problem-solving skills are also vital. Physician assistants can have patients with conditions that might not initially be obvious.

Finding the right diagnosis may involve talking to the patient and ordering tests. But you also should be able to think outside the box and understand all possible causes of your patient’s distress.

For example, if a patient has chest pains, the physician assistant may refer them for an electrocardiogram. The physician assistant may ask the patient about any medications they're on and discuss their symptoms. If the cause isn't obvious, further problem-solving and referrals may be required.

Because physician assistants need to be overseen by physicians, they can ask their supervisor for assistance.

Where to get a job as a physician assistant

When you're ready, you can start your job search. Jobcase is the place to be, and, as mentioned earlier, you can browse physician assistant positions on our job board. You can look for a position near you and sign up for free job alerts.

You can also get in touch with your health industry contacts and ask if they know anyone who is hiring.

Working as a physician assistant

Is it time to start a medical career? Physician assistants have a positive job outlook.

It'll take you over six years to become a physician assistant. You'll need to complete an undergraduate degree and get work experience. Then, you'll need to enroll in a physician assistant program and pass a licensing exam.

There are a few skills you'll need for the job, some of which are soft skills that you may have gained in non-medical roles. You'll need communication skills, compassion, attention to detail, and problem-solving skills. Plus, you'll need medical knowledge, of course.

Want to find a job right now? Head to our job board. Want more articles like this one? Hop over to our resource center.

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