Physician Assistant Career Profile and Overview

Doctors performing surgery

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The role of a physician assistant varies by state because the way they are able to practice depends on the state laws in which they practice. Physician assistants (P.A.s) are sometimes confused with medical assistants or nurses. However, physician assistants are much more educationally and clinically advanced than medical assistants, and they don't attend nursing school for their degree.

Physician assistants are often referred to as "mid-level" providers because they are sort of in between physicians and nurses in their clinical authority, although they are somewhat similar to nurse practitioners in their role.

Sometimes, P.A.s are called "physician extenders" because they can see patients and charge for office visits without a physician's direct supervision. This allows a medical practice to see more patients, and earn more revenue, with fewer physicians. In many states, however, P.A.s must practice under indirect supervision from a physician, meaning a physician must be in the building or sign off on all clinical orders and prescriptions written by a P.A.

Educational Requirements

Physician assisting requires a bachelor's degree and completion of a master's program in physician assisting from an accredited P.A. school. The program is usually about two years and includes eight clinical rotations lasting five weeks each.

To expedite the process and increase your chances of being accepted into a P.A. program, it helps if your bachelor's degree is in a science such as biology. Otherwise, you may have to take additional hours of prerequisite lab sciences before applying to a P.A. program.


Physician assistants can work in medical offices or in hospitals, depending upon their specialty. For example, in the case of surgical P.A.s, they may work in the operating room assisting a surgeon in surgery at a hospital or at an outpatient surgery center.

Depending on the state laws, P.A.s may work very independently with minimal physician oversight, or in other states, they may be supervised more closely. In any case, they have more clinical authority and independence than most nurses, but not as much as physicians.

In most states, physician assistants can see patients and diagnose them, prescribe medication, and perform procedures much like a physician would.

Physician assistants can focus on a variety of medical specialties. Some of the most common are family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, orthopedics, and cardiology.

Some medical industry leaders feel that physician assistants are an integral part of the solution to the physician shortage. On the other hand, physicians cite the disparity in P.A. training as compared to physicians. (Physicians attend four years of medical school plus a minimum of three years in residency training, for a total of at least seven years, while the physician assistant training is a total of two years including clinical rotations.)

Average Salary and Compensation

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows average salary for physician assistants to be $97,280 annually. However, other salary reports show the average salary to be well over $100,000. According to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), the average annual compensation for physician assistants is $84,326 in primary care and $97,207 for surgical specialties. Additionally, benefits often include an additional $6,000 to $7,000 worth of retirement benefits per year.

Additional Information

As with any specialized professional health career, a professional association is an excellent resource for additional information about specific licensure requirements, educational needs, and state practice laws.

The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is a great place to go for such specialized, detailed information including a list of accredited P.A. schools.

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