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Physician Assistant Degree Programs and Training

Physician assistants (PAs) are state-licensed, nationally certified medical professionals that practice medicine in a variety of health care settings. Providing services in all 50 states, physician assistants can be found in every field of medical practice, such as pediatrics, gerontology, internal medicine and oncology. As an occupation, physician assistants are experiencing an explosion of career potential. By the year 2025, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts there will be a national shortage of physicians. This decline, coupled with an aging population and growing demands for health care coverage, means physician assistants are well-positioned for employment opportunities.

Becoming a physician assistant requires the completion of a graduate program of study. There are currently 190 physician assistant programs accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. The goal of these programs is to train and prepare graduates to become practicing primary care clinicians, armed with both clinical experience and the knowledge required to provide medical services in a rapidly changing (and growing) health care system.

Physician assistant degree programs

As noted above, the minimum educational requirement for both certification and licensing to practice as a PA is a master's degree. Of the 191 programs available, the five states with the most programs include:

  • New York: 21 programs
  • Pennsylvania: 20 programs
  • Ohio: 10 programs
  • California: 10 programs
  • Florida: 9 programs

Although all students earn a master's degree, individual universities may confer a different type of master's degree, such as the Master of Health Sciences-Physician Assistant, Master of Physician Assistant Practice or Master of Physician Assistant Studies.

Typically, each program requires approximately three years of full-time study to complete (33 to 36 months) divided between classroom-based instruction and clinical training. Although the traditional focus is primary care, PAs can complete training in a range of specialized areas of practice, such as pediatrics or psychiatry.

Physician assistant training

Before entering a master's program, students should already have completed a bachelor's degree, a set of program prerequisites and -- in most cases -- have professional experience in the health care industry. In order to train PAs to become fully competent medical providers, the curriculum includes integrated coursework in many areas, including some of the following:

  • Medical sciences
  • Pharmacology
  • Human anatomy
  • Clinical laboratory science
  • Medical ethics
  • Physiology

The first year of study is traditionally dedicated to foundational training in the clinical sciences, clinical medicine, and specialty care through a series of workshops, classroom instruction, lectures, small group activities, and clinical experiences. The remainder of the program consists of intensive clinical training and practicums, with a focus on primary care in a variety of clinical settings and different patient populations.

In order to qualify for certification, students must complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of primary care clinical rotations, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants. The clinical training provides students with the opportunity to provide preventative, therapeutic, diagnostic, and health maintenance services in both hospital and clinic settings. Rotations are divided between specialty areas of practice, such as family medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology, emergency medicine, and more.

Physician assistant career outlook

Multiple publications, including Forbes and Glassdoor, have named physician assistant as one of the top career fields in the country. With average salaries pushing $100,000 and employment growth approaching 40 percent, there are incredible opportunities in this field. In 2014, there were more than 91,000 physician assistants employed across the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By 2022, another 33,300 positions are expected to be created nationally, a growth rate of 38 percent.

At the state level, the demand is significant.12 states are projected to have employment increases that surpass the national average, led by Georgia -- a state that is predicted to have job growth reach 67.9 percent between 2012 and 2022. Projections Central reports the five states with the top growth include:

  • Georgia (67.9%)
  • Arizona (51.3%)
  • Utah (50.4%)
  • Virginia (48.2%)
  • Kentucky (45.3%)

In 2014, BLS data reported PAs earning an average salary of $97,280, with the top percentile of earners taking home more than $134,000. Within health care, some of the best paying industries in 2014 included home health ($116,220) and outpatient care centers ($101,600). The highest paying states in 2014 included Nevada ($112,700), Rhode Island ($111,180), New Hampshire ($109,760), Washington ($107,390), and Texas ($107,390).

Sources:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, OOH, Physician Assistant, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm

Bureau of Labor Statistics, OES, Physician Assistant, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291071.htm

Huffington Post, These are the 25 best jobs in America, if all you care about is numbers, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/27/best-jobs-in-america_n_6548224.html

Forbes, The Best and Worst Jobs for Masters Degrees, http://www.forbes.com/pictures/efkk45ifij/no-1-best-masters-degree-for-jobs-physician-assistant-studies/

Association of American Medical Colleges "Help Wanted: More U.S. Doctors Projections Indicate America Will Face Shortages of M.D.s by 2020", https://www.aamc.org/download/82874/data/helpwanted.pdf

Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

American Association of Physician Assistants, https://www.aapa.org

Physician Assistant Schools

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