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On the Job with Physician Assistants

On the Job with Physician Assistants

Wendy J. Meyeroff, Monster Contributing Writer

Working alongside physicians, Bill Mahaffy has harvested arteries and treated patients in cardiac-care units, but he’s not a physician; he’s a physician assistant (PA), an occupation that is expected to be one of the fastest-growing over the coming years.

PAs, who work under the supervision of doctors, are highly trained, licensed healthcare professionals who treat and diagnose patients, perform various medical procedures and act as a liaison with nurses, lab techs and others on the healthcare team. In 49 states and the District of Columbia, PAs can even prescribe medication.

With greater demand for healthcare services, Mahaffy says PAs are “taking care of about 80 percent of what the doctors used to,” freeing doctors to focus on more complicated cases.

For those willing to undergo the rigorous required medical training, the PA profession offers excellent prospects and a variety of opportunities for specialization.

Fast-Growing Field

Mahaffy, a certified physician assistant (PA-C) at Evangelical Community Hospital in Columbia, Pennsylvania, became a PA about 10 years ago after 25 years as a paramedic. “I had colleagues who were PAs, and it seemed like a logical progression,” he explains. “It was the best career choice I ever made.”

It’s a promising one as well. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupation will be the fourth fastest-growing job in the nation through 2014, when the number of PAs is expected to increase to 93,000, up 50 percent from 2004. The median annual salary is about $65,000, with the top 10 percent earning more than $94,000.

While salaries are high, aspiring PAs must be willing to tackle one of the more extensive health education programs outside of traditional medical school. Most physician assistant programs require applicants to have previous healthcare experience and some college education. The typical applicant holds a bachelor’s degree and has worked in healthcare for about four years, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants. PA training usually takes about two years full-time. In addition, graduates must pass a national certifying exam to obtain their state licenses. Continuing education is also required.

Like Mahaffy, many PAs segue naturally into the occupation from other healthcare fields. Mahaffy has seen former nurses, exercise physiologists, fitness trainers and even two mortuary technicians become PAs.

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