The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the healthcare system in the US, revealing gaps in care delivery, especially in rural areas. In communities where doctors were in short supply, waivers that temporarily suspended regulations regarding direct physician (MD) oversight of physician assistants (PAs) enabled PAs to take on patient care autonomously.
Some states have attempted to make these temporary pandemic stop-gap measures permanent. Colorado lawmakers, for example, proposed a bill to “allow experienced PAs to work more independently of physicians, in hopes that it would attract more of them to rural settings and safety-net clinics.”
This loosening of direct physician supervision of PAs proved controversial within the medical community. Aggressive lobbying by physicians’ medical groups helped defeat the Colorado bill—disappointingly, without addressing the lack of access to healthcare in too many communities. To compound this problem, the nation is heading toward a physician shortage of between 37,800 and 124,00 primary and specialty care positions by 2034.
Clearly, physician assistants play a critical role in delivering quality healthcare around the country. Demand for these valued professionals should only increase in the years to come. You may be thinking about undertaking a career as a physician assistant and wondering how much do PAs make? We’ll answer that question, as well as:
A physician assistant is a trained and licenced clinician with broad medical knowledge who takes a team-based approach to care. They support physicians in practice by taking medical histories, prescribing medication, conducting physical exams, diagnosing illnesses, developing treatment plans, assisting in surgery, and performing medical research.
PAs work under the direction of a physician in all areas of medicine including pediatrics and family medicine, primary care, internal medicine, orthopedics, oncology, emergency medicine, and in obstetrics and gynecology—and can supplement primary care for populations and medical practices that need it most.
Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are state-licensed medical professionals who play similar roles in the healthcare industry and are similarly paid. However, there are some differences in their training and in the maintenance of their certification requirements.
PAs are medical generalists who work collaboratively to provide comprehensive patient care. They are master’s-level trained in a medical school curriculum and are overseen by a physician. PAs maintain national certification with 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years and a recertification exam every ten years, and are overseen by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, Inc. (NCCPA).
Nurse practitioners earn their master’s or doctorate degrees through nursing school and focus on a specific population—women’s health, pediatrics, mental health, adult/gerontology, neonatal, and family—each overseen by its own certifying body. Certification is maintained with 100 hours of continuing education and 1,000 clinical hours every five years.
The future is bright for PAs in the US. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that PA jobs are forecast to grow by 31 percent from 2020 to 2030, which translates to about 12,200 PA job openings each year, on average. Physician assistant ranks second in “Best Healthcare Jobs” and third in “Best STEM Jobs” in US News & World Report’s “Best Jobs” rankings with an overall score of 8.3.
PAs typically enjoy job security and report high job satisfaction—and they’re also paid handsomely. Physician assistants in the US earn a median salary of $115,390, with the 75th percentile averaging $135,220, and the 25th percentile averaging $95,730.
US News & World Report lists PA salary data by city, state, and place of employment. Top paying cities for PAs include:
The states that pay the highest average physician assistant salary are:
In a state-ranked salary comparison in CompHealth’s 2021 salary report, Alaska, California, and Washington offer the highest PA base salaries, while California, Maine, and New Mexico deliver the top hourly wages. Adjusted for cost of living, the top three states for PA salaries are Oklahoma, Michigan, and Texas, while the top for hourly wages are Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Kansas.
US News & World Report also notes that places of employment with the highest average annual salaries for PAs are:
Of note, a majority of physician assistants (53 percent) work in physicians’ offices.
The American Academy of PAs (AAPA) hosts a helpful interactive salary report generator that allows you to plug in geographic location, work settings, and years of experience to compare average salary data with the national average.
Physician assistant master’s programs are designed to train PAs as medical generalists, which allows for flexibility in specializations, medical settings, and work/life balance. All US PA programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA), which sets national standards.
Most PA programs take about three years of full-time study to complete—including all coursework and clinical rotations. Graduates then take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants, Inc. (NCCPA), and pursue state licensing.
Most PA programs require at least two years of undergraduate classes in behavioral and basic science, as well as coursework in physiology, anatomy, psychology, statistics, chemistry, biology, and microbiology. In addition, these programs often require about three years (or a set number of hours) of relevant experience, such as working as a paramedic or EMT, medic, lab technician, medical assistant, ER or surgical tech, or registered nurse.
Applicants to PA master’s programs typically must submit undergraduate transcripts (showing a 3.0 GPA or higher), letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and specific medical certifications.
Typically PA programs include two years of coursework and labs, with clinical rotations scheduled in year three. Classes are designed to provide solid, generalized medical training with coursework in human anatomy, clinical medicine, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, pharmacology, health policy, and health issues across a lifespan.
Clinical rotations, which are scheduled in the final year of the PA program, highlight some of the available specializations in areas like emergency medicine, urgent care, dermatology, critical care, pediatrics, OBGYN, family medicine, surgery, and general practice.
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