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Career Profile: Physician Assistant

Why Is a Physician Assistant a Job of Tomorrow?
Physicians are seeing more patients than ever, and consequently, the need for assistants to help them handle the workload will intensify. The number of employment positions for physician assistants is forecast to rise 27 percent, a much faster growth rate than the average for all U.S. occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual salary for physician assistants is $74,980.

What Does a Physician Assistant Do?
Physician assistants are different from medical assistants. Medical assistants perform clerical tasks, such as updating and filing patient records, whereas physician assistants handle many of the same responsibilities as a doctor, but under the supervision of a physician. Physician assistants examine and diagnose patients, treat minor injuries such as suturing wounds and implement therapeutic treatments. In every state but two, as well as the District of Columbia, physician assistants can also prescribe medications. Physician assistants often act as a primary health provider for patients in those rural areas or inner cities where physicians are present for only a few days of the week. The assistants, because they are trained to perform the same basic tasks as a physician, are able to fill in and provide quality health care in the doctor's absence. The most common workplaces for physician assistants are in family medicine clinics, pediatric offices and other primary care facilities.

What Kind of Training Do I Need to Become a Physician Assistant?
Although physician assistants function as doctors for the most part, they do not have to undergo the same schooling that physicians must complete. Prospective physician assistants must complete an accredited physician assistant program, which typically lasts about two years. Applicants to the program must have finished at least two years of college and demonstrate that they have a substantial amount of health care knowledge. In many cases, physician assistant program students have a four-year bachelor's degree in a health care related major. Registered nurses, emergency medical technicians and paramedics make up a large portion of the physician assistant student population, according to Colby College. Physician assistant programs cover such topics as biochemistry, anatomy and family medicine. Program graduates must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam before they can begin practicing. Assistants must also complete 100 hours of continuing medical education every two years, as well as take a recertification examination every six years. This rigorous process ensures that all physician assistants remain relevant and knowledgeable.