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Physician assistants (PAs) practice medicine under the direction of physicians and surgeons. They are formally trained to examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment.
Working as members of the health care team, PAs take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X-rays, make diagnoses, and prescribe medications. They also treat minor injuries by suturing, splinting and casting. PAs record progress notes, instruct and counsel patients, and order or carry out therapy.
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Physician assistants work in physicians' offices, hospitals and other health care settings. Most work full time.
Many PAs work in primary care areas, such as family medicine, general internal medicine and pediatrics. Others work in specialty areas, such as general and thoracic surgery, emergency medicine, orthopedics, and geriatrics. PAs specializing in surgery provide preoperative and postoperative care and may work as first or second assistants during major surgery. PAs also may supervise technicians and assistants.
The duties of physician assistants are determined by the supervising physician and state law. For example, in most of the U.S. and the District of Columbia, physician assistants are licensed to prescribe medications. Physician assistants should not be confused with medical assistants, who perform clinical and administrative clerical tasks.
From 2010 to 2020, employment of physician assistants is expected to increase 30 percent, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This is due to anticipated expansion of the health services industry and an emphasis on cost containment.
Today, more than 85,000 PAs are working across the U.S. With the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting a 30 percent increase in the number of jobs available for PAs through 2020, the job market for PAs is strong in much of the country.
Physicians and institutions are expected to employ more PAs to provide primary care and assist with medical and surgical procedures because PAs are cost-effective, productive members of the health care team. Physician assistants can relieve physicians of routine duties and procedures. Telemedicine — using technology to facilitate interactive consultations between physicians and physician assistants — also will expand the use of physician assistants.
Besides the traditional office-based setting, PAs should find a growing number of jobs in institutional settings, such as hospitals, academic medical centers, public clinics and prisons.
In addition, state-imposed legal limitations on the numbers of hours worked by physician residents are increasingly common and encourage hospitals to use PAs to supply some physician resident services. Opportunities will be best in states that allow PAs a wider scope of practice.
According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants, median income for physician assistants in full-time clinical practice in 2010 was $86,410, and median income for first-year graduates was $75,610. Income varies by specialty, practice setting, geographical location and years of experience.
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