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Physician Assistant: A Career in Demand

It's one of the fastest growing professions in North America, yet many people still haven't heard of it. But that is changing. The health-care professionals known as physician assistants (PAs) are poised to take center stage.

"When I graduated in 1996, I had to explain what a PA does every day to every patient and to every provider that hadn't met me at the hospital yet," says Kevin Lohenry. "And nowadays when people ask what I do, it seems like many more know what we do and who we are."

In addition to being a physician assistant, Lohenry is president of the Physician Assistant Education Association.

Physician assistants (PAs) work under the supervision of physicians. They diagnose and treat patients and assist in surgeries. They are able to do most of the things done by physicians.

Counting the Demand

As their numbers grow, physician assistants are getting more attention. More and more people are learning about the important role that PAs play in our health-care system.

"In 1996, there were 29,000 practicing PAs. And we now have over 81,000 certified PAs," says Lohenry.

"I think we're hitting a tipping point where there's enough of us out there that people are starting to become more familiar [with us], but we still have a long way to go with high school guidance counselors and college guidance counselors."

Most PAs are graduates of master's PA programs that take about two years to complete. Applicants typically have a BA or BS degree and some health care experience before entering a PA program.

"Graduates find work fairly quickly. Many have multiple job offers and the salaries have continued to rise," says Lohenry.

This growth is expected to continue for many years to come.

"There's a shortage that's predicted, from many of the leading workforce experts in the United States, of about 91,000 physicians in the year 2020," says Lohenry.

"That's among primary care physicians and specialty physicians, and so PAs and nurse practitioners will likely play a significant role in tending to the needs of our health-care system. And so I think the job outlook looks very, very good."

Explaining the Increase

"It's less costly to train us. We're able to get to the workforce more quickly than the time it takes to train a physician," says Lohenry.

He explains that PA programs have an average length of about 26 months. After that, they are able to help the physician as part of a PA-physician team caring for patients.

"I think that growth has come from the variety of physicians and health systems that have seen the competency that we provide in terms of compassionate, competent health care as a profession," Lohenry adds. "It has caught on."

PAs say they have a very rewarding career.

"It's a very satisfying, collegial teamwork profession," says Ky Haverkamp. He's a practicing PA and a professor in the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

"The other thing that is fueling that growth is the amount of flexibility you have in your career," says Haverkamp. "For example, many of our graduates will initially work in primary care for seven to 10 years, and then potentially transfer to a specialty area."

For example, after gaining experience, a PA could specialize in orthopedics. Then the PA has the professional flexibility to move to another area, such as cardiology or thoracic surgery.

"So it's a very fluid, dynamic profession that gives you a lot of options, in addition to teaching options," says Haverkamp.

Time to Discover the PA Profession

More and more young people are starting to discover this growing profession. Chelsea Sauve is one example. She's a student in the physician assistant program at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

"It's unfortunate because I didn't learn about the PA profession or didn't really know who PAs were or what they did until I was a junior in college, and it's such a growing profession right now," says Sauve.

She wishes more young people knew about it this profession -- especially young people who are interested in health care, but don't want to become a doctor. "We are medical providers, we are health-care professionals, we do provide physician care," she says.


American Academy of Physician Assistants
Learn more about being a physician assistant

Society of Emergency Medicine Physician Assistants
Learn about working in the ER

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