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Physician Assistants

Physician assistants are somewhere between nurses and physicians. They carry out health-care services like nurses, but extend beyond these services to diagnose and treat illnesses under their own authority. They may even administer said treatments themselves, under the supervision of a physician.

What to Expect

Physician assistants are quite hands-on in their approach to providing support for physicians in the health care environment. They perform many of the same care-related services as nurses, but are also authorized to perform higher level medical tasks, such as diagnosing patients, taking stock of patient histories, and even treating some injuries that require specialized remedies such as suturing or splinting.

Some physician assistants work in specialized fields, such as simple surgeries, orthopedic therapies, or geriatric care. Some particularly adept physician assistants may even act as a first or second assistant during major surgeries, and as such are some of the most critical members of the health care team.

Education, Training, and Certification

Naturally, a position as complex and demanding as a physician assistant requires a great deal of education and preparation. Generally, one begins by completing a physician assistant training program at an accredited university or college. These programs differ radically in their content and associated degrees, with some of them conferring a basic certificate, others an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree.

Like most employees in the medical field, physician assistants are required to undergo some form of licensure examination, which varies by state. Often, additional training is required by states as well, and physician assistants will have to complete these requirements in order to legally work in the field.

Employment Options

There are a variety of employment options for physician assistants, each of which carries its own unique responsibilities and requirements. Those who choose to work in general medical or surgical hospitals will perform perhaps the widest range of services, up to and including treatment of traumatic injuries and participating in major surgeries, while those who work in outpatient care centers, for example, will generally have fewer responsibilities. It is also possible for physician assistants to work in an educational capacity in schools or universities, working alongside the physicians who conduct classes and educate the next generation of medical professionals.

It is worth noting that, as with nursing, a physician assistant position is not a “step on the road” to becoming a full-on physician. Rather, the very nature of the position is that one will always act as an assistant to a physician. One may very well receive promotions and take on greater and greater responsibility, but one will never make high-level medical decisions without the supervision of a physician.

Employment Outlook

As with most jobs in the medical and health care fields, the role of the physician assistant is expected to grow and expand considerably in the coming decade. Employment is expected to grow by as much as 39%, with job growth in a wide variety of settings. Therefore, those who wish to participate in the exciting field will have little difficulty finding a job, providing that they are willing to undergo the somewhat rigorous training involved first.

Projected Salary

Physician assistants perform complex services and take on a huge amount of personal responsibility within the health care setting. As a result, they are typically well compensated for their services, earning an average of $81,230 a year. The highest paid professionals are those who work in general hospital settings ($84,550), while those who work in educational settings such as schools and universities tend to come in at the lower range of the salary spread, making an average of $74,200 a year.

The editors of McGraw-Hill and the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Big Book of Jobs, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2012-2013 ©2009 by the McGraw-Hill Companies,  Material "Adapted"

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