Physician Assistant Career
By an allied health world contributing writer
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In 2009, CNNMoney.com ranked physician assistant at number 2 of the top 50 jobs while US News put it in its list of 30 best jobs. Being a physician assistant is an exciting and demanding, but relatively high-paying career filled with the rewards of healing the sick, the thrill of making quick, life-saving decisions, the stimulation of working with cutting-edge technology and techniques and the respect accorded to those who are among the most knowledgeable workers in the healthcare field.
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Choosing a physician assistant career may be an excellent middle ground for those intrigued by medicine but unable to meet the steep requirements of obtaining a medical diploma. Becoming a doctor of medicine requires an extensive amount of schooling, residencies and internships and often requires spending large chunks of time dealing with legal, administrative and supervisory issues not directly related to caring for patients. Physician assistants enjoy a level of autonomy and decision-making reserved for an elite few. Also, the daunting cost of medical school may be an insurmountable hurdle for those who want to save lives, practice medicine, perform surgery, identify and cure diseases and interact directly with patients to help heal them. The costs to become a physician assistant may be as little as a third of those to become a doctor. If these qualities sound appealing, a physician assistant career may be the ideal path to take.
While physician assistants cannot own their own practice or work without some supervision from a physician, they often have the opportunity to spend a lot of quality time with patients, make independent decisions regarding course of treatment, perform surgery, write prescriptions and direct the work of other physician assistants and nurses. Many doctors, hospitals and clinics find physicians assistants to be invaluable additions to their staff and in regions of the country where M.D.s may be scarce (e.g., inner cities, remote areas), physician assistants fulfill a critical role in providing high-quality care to those in most need. The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants said that medical employers surveyed in 2005 overwhelmingly agreed that hiring physician assistants lets them treat more patients and reduce the time patients must wait for treatment.
Physician assistants work in doctor’s offices and hospitals, nursing homes, occupational health clinics and outpatient care centers. They hold roles in municipal, state, military and federal government agencies as well as in teaching and clinical roles in research facilities, colleges and universities. Physician assistants work in every branch of medicine—from family practice and pediatrics to emergency, occupational and dermatology. They are in especially high demand in surgical settings, where the presence of multiple M.D.s in the operating room may be cost prohibitive or impossible to schedule.
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The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) estimates that in 2008, physician assistants handled 257,000,000 patient visits. The work of physician assistants generally parallels that of M.D.s and it is up to the supervising physician to delegate those tasks the physician assistant is capable of doing. As long as the work is within the scope of the supervising doctor, there are few limits to how a physician assistant can help patients regain and maintain their health. These professionals extend the reach of the physician by making rounds, admitting and discharging patients, diagnosing and ordering tests. Physician assistants can perform minor surgeries (like removing a wart) independently, but would require a physician’s presence for riskier operations, like a bypass. Because they cannot own their own practice, physician assistants usually bear fewer administrative and clerical responsibilities as do M.D.s. Although an administrative role may be a goal for a physician assistant who seeks a higher-paying opportunity.
State laws and hospital rules govern how many physicians assistants may work in a practice for each physician. Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance companies differ as to whether they pay the same or lower compensation for work done by physician assistants compared to M.D.s. Some physician assistants work in multiple settings each week, and the demand for physician assistants remains high while the competition to get into good education programs is fierce and the curriculum is challenging.