When Laura Pallay needed an orthopedic appointment for her daughter, she was told the first opening was two weeks away. Not wanting to wait, she asked about meeting with the practice’s physician assistant (PA).

Today’s PA

“He was incredible,” recalls Pallay. He not only spent more time with her than she was used to, but was up-to-date on the latest in treatment.

Pallay isn’t alone in discovering the value of a PA. Demand for physician assistants is up more than 300 percent since 2012. “Now is the moment for PAs,” says Jeffrey A. Katz, a PA who serves as president and chair of the Board of American Academy of Physician Assistants. “This is a career for those who have a passion for caring for others, who want to affect change in health care.”

Earning your stripes

The typical path to becoming a PA includes a bachelor’s degree and about four years of health care experience. The average program (there are currently 200 accredited programs graduating about 8,900 new physician assistants each year) requires roughly 27 months to complete.

“'Collaboration is key; PAs and physicians work together as members of a health care team.'” 

A PA will undergo extensive training on the graduate level, modeled after medical school curriculums and including more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. As nationally certified and state-licensed providers, they may diagnose, write prescriptions, order and interpret tests, treat patients and even assist in surgery. To maintain that certification, the PA is subject to a rigorous set of continuing education requirements.

Day by day

Workdays range from treating newborns to the elderly in environments encompassing urgent care clinics to surgical units. Salaries have a median exceeding $93,000 and many say the career affords a healthy work-life balance. Seventy-three percent recently surveyed indicated they had multiple offers.  

“One of the most prevalent misunderstandings is that a physician has to be on-site for a PA to see patients,” says Jenna Dorn, the chief executive officer of AAPA. In fact, she adds, no state requires a physician to be present 100 percent of the time. “Collaboration is key; PAs and physicians work together as members of a health care team.”