Career Pathway: Physician Assistant

Pathway Overview

Why become a physician assistant?

  • Increasing demand
  • Fulfilling path
  • High-paying career
  • Similar to physician without going to medical school

Physician assistants (PA) are an important part of the healthcare field. For those who want to help patients in a healthcare capacity and desire more responsibility than a registered nurse (RN), but do not want to go to medical school, the PA career is a fantastic path. The outlook for the physician assistant role is incredibly bright. 

“Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 31 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.” -U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

There are many specializations that a PA can pursue in many settings. The following resources highlight the key skills needed, as well as the different specialties and work settings a PA can pursue. 

Certifications and Licenses

To pursue a career as a physician assistant, you must obtain a required certification that allows you to apply for a state license. with that certification. Other certifications may not be required, but some employers may seek them in candidates. 

Physician Assistant – Certified (PA-C)

A PA-C credential demonstrates clinical knowledge in a wide-variety of healthcare specialties with a focus on primary care. To become eligible to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), one must graduate from a master’s level physician assistant program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Once a student passes the PANCE, they can refer to themselves as a Physician Assistant – Certified and apply for a state license to practice as a physician assistant.

Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ)

The CAQ is an optional credential that demonstrates advanced knowledge and experience in seven specialties: cardiovascular and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, hospital medicine, nephrology, orthopaedic surgery, pediatrics, and psychiatry. To obtain one of these credentials, you must 1) be a certified PA-C 2) have an unrestricted PA license issued by a state 3) have completed the requisite number of experience hours for that specialty and 4) pass the examination for that specialty.

In-Demand Skills

Ultimately, your ability to land a specific role rests on your experience and educational background, as well as your proficiency in the skills below.

Transferable Skills and Qualities

  • Critical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration 
  • Adaptability
  • Flexibility
  • Analytical ability 
  • Self-awareness
  • Interpersonal communication skills
  • Commitment to lifelong learning
  • Leadership skills

Field-Specific Skills

  • Diseases diagnosis
  • Therapeutic decision making
  • Clinical problem solving
  • Medical history intake 
  • Physical examination conducting
  • Treatment plan development and monitoring
  • Data and test result interpretation
  • Patient education and empowerment
  • Cultural competence practices

Job Fields

Physician Assistant

Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine alongside physicians, surgeons, nurses, and other healthcare workers. PAs are still able to examine, diagnose, and treat patients. They also perform procedures and prescribe medication. The primary difference between a PA and a physician is that a PA works primarily under the supervision of a doctor,  but they generally perform up to 80% of a doctor’s duties. 

According to the BLS, the job outlook for PAs is expected to increase 31% between 2020 and 2030, far faster than average. Some PAs enter the healthcare field as medical technicians or pharmacy assistants before deciding to pursue a PA master’s degree. Some PAs then choose to pursue a doctorate of medicine and go on to become physicians. PAs can also choose to specialize within their profession.

Possible specialities include:

  • Emergency Medicine 
  • General Surgery
  • Women’s Health
  • Primary Care
  • Pediatrics 
  • Behavioral Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Ambulatory Medicine
  • Cardiology
  • Cardiothoracic Surgery
  • Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
  • Neonatology
  • Pediatric ED
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Orthopedic Surgery
  • Dermatology
  • Hematology/Oncology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Neurosurgery
  • Surgical Intensive Care (ICU)

Work settings include:

  • Physicians’ Offices
  • General Medical Hospitals
  • Outpatient Care Centers    
  • Other Health Practitioners’ Offices
  • Colleges, Universities, and Schools

Job Title Examples: Physician Assistant, Surgical Physician Assistant, Family Practice Physician Assistant, PA – Emergency Department

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