Now is the moment for PAs. It's our time, and the overwhelming recognition by multiple sources including Glassdoor in just the past year shows that being a PA is the best of all worlds.
PAs get to do what they love — practice medicine. This is a career for those who have a passion for caring for others, who want to affect change in healthcare, and, ultimately, who want to positively influence lives and heal.
In addition to accomplishing meaningful healthcare, career flexibility and work-life balance are the hallmarks of the PA profession. A typical PA may practice in two to three specialties throughout his or her career, making PAs uniquely versatile in today's healthcare industry.
The PA schedule can also be family friendly, and PAs have more control over their work environments — which leads to higher levels of professional satisfaction.
We are also evolving healthcare and continue to be agents of change. PAs across the country and AAPA work daily with state and federal lawmakers to improve scope-of-practice laws, remove barriers that stand in the way of our ability to deliver care, and, ultimately, improve patient access to care.
And our healthcare system continues to need PAs. According to healthcare search firm Merritt Hawkins, demand for PAs increased more than 300% from 2011 to 2014.
What being a PA entails
At the heart of it, PAs practice medicine.
Because our education is modeled on the medical school curriculum, PAs share similar diagnostic and therapeutic reasoning with physicians. This education and training fully prepares us to collaborate on the healthcare team and perform a wide variety of highly skilled medical roles, including pre-operative, intra-operative, and post-operative care.
And while teamwork and team-based care have long been at the core of a PA's DNA, we also practice with a great deal of independence and autonomy in collaboration with all members of the healthcare team.
As a practicing clinician and former part-owner of a rural family practice in, Taylorsville, North Carolina, my day runs the gamut, from seeing patients with colds to those with multiple chronic conditions to behavioral health issues — another growing health crisis where PAs can make a tremendous difference.
Being a PA keeps me fresh and on my toes and allows me to do what I love — care for patients.
The main differences between being a PA and a physician
Today, there are many more similarities than differences between practicing physicians and PAs, and we all work together as part of the healthcare team.
Medical school education is longer than typical PA programs. However, in my particular experience, I work hand in hand with my partner physician. He is collegial and collaborative and comes to me for consult often, and vice versa. We go back and forth discussing and assessing patient cases, reviewing X-rays, and ultimately advising each other.
A typical day
There is no "typical day" for a PA.
In clinic, I see patients across life's spectrum, from newborn babies to those who are in the sunset portion of their lives. On average, I see 25 to 40 patients per day and sometimes more — patients who I know and care for regularly.
A day in the life of a PA varies depending on where he or she works and the cases that come in each day. You will find PAs everywhere from hospitals to urgent care clinics, ERs to the family care practice to the surgical unit.
And in any given day, a PA may be diagnosing illnesses, developing and carrying out treatment plans, assisting in surgery, performing procedures and counseling patients.
As with others who practice medicine, the PA work week varies depending on the practice setting, location, and specialty.
While a hospital-based PA may work weekends, nights or early mornings, another PA in a walk-in clinic may work a 40-hour week during regular business hours.
In my busy rural family practice, I work more than 50 hours a week, so it really does depend on the setting.
Common misconceptions about the job
Surprisingly, there are quite a few misconceptions about PAs.
First and foremost, PAs practice medicine, and many people don't understand this. I would also say one of the most prevalent misunderstandings is that a physician has to be on-site for a PA to see patients. The fact is, no state requires a physician to be on site 100% of the time PAs are seeing patients. Collaboration is key — PAs and physicians work together as members of a healthcare team.
PAs can see new patients in all settings without a physician present. In fact, PAs play a critical role in enhancing access to care in rural and underserved areas — the top three states for certified PAs are Alaska, South Dakota and Maine by concentration.
And PAs can practice in specialties. There are approximately 104,000 certified PAs today practicing medicine, performing consultations, and seeing new patients in every medical and surgical subspecialty, from pediatric neurosurgery to oncology to primary care.
Most useful skills for a PA to have
To be a successful PA, one needs a unique set of skills.
First, he or she needs to have the capability to lead, to be on the cutting edge of transformation in healthcare, and be an agent of change.
A PA also needs to be able to critically assess and diagnose complex problems and to coordinate care to help improve patient health.
Some of the key attributes I see across the PA profession include: detail-oriented and analytical thinking, compassion and empathy, the ability to pivot from working independently to within the healthcare team environment, confidence, and the desire to work hard to increase patient access to care and improve healthcare.
How to become a PA
During our education, PAs are trained to diagnose, treat, and prescribe, and they are often educated alongside physicians in medical schools, academic medical centers, and residencies.
The typical student entering a PA student has a bachelor's degree and approximately four years of healthcare experience, and the average PA program takes 26 months to complete. Nearly all programs award Master's degrees.
PA students take nearly 580 hours of clinical medicine, more than 400 hours in basic sciences, 175 hours in behavioral sciences, and more than 75 hours in pharmacology.
After classroom study, PA students complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical rotations in both outpatient clinics and in hospitals.
Today, there are 196 accredited PA programs graduating 8,900 new PAs each year, and admission to them is extremely competitive. As a proof point to the profession's growth, there were only 54 programs in 1991.
Prior to practicing medicine, a PA must get licensed in their state. Every state requires the same criteria for PA licensure: graduation from an accredited PA program and passage of the certification exam administered by the National Commission on Certification of PAs (NCCPA).
To maintain national certification, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years and pass a national recertification exam every 10 years.
And in practice, a PA's scope grows over time with clinical experience.
Advice for breaking into the industry
My advice for any PA grad is to be vigilant. While there is high demand, PAs need to choose the right path for their passions.
As they complete their education and training, they should identify pathways that excite them and begin research early on available opportunities.
PAs can look to AAPA for advice, guidance and job opportunities, as well as join state and specialty organizations that appeal to their desired locations and specialties.