If you’ve always thought you might like to practice medicine but the idea of 10 or more years of education is scary or out of the range of your wallet, you might want to look into a career as a physician assistant, or PA. You will have less responsibility, but a PA also has her doctor right there for advice and backup, while a physician is one of those the-buck-stops-here professions, with major responsibility in the arena of life and death.
Education and Duties
PAs must have at least two years of college-level courses such as chemistry, anatomy, physiology and microbiology, and many aspiring PAs obtain a bachelor’s degree in science or a related field before they go into PA school. Most PA educational programs last about two years, and may prefer or require that the student have prior health care experience. A PA performs many tasks once reserved for doctors, such as diagnosing diseases and prescribing medicines. PAs are licensed and may be certified. A PA is only allowed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician.
Average Salary and Job Outlook
The average annual salary of a physician assistant was $89,470 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Odds are a PA will be well able to find a job in the future, as there is a shortage of primary health care physicians. The BLS expects the employment of PAs to grow by 30 percent between 2010 and 2020 – more than twice the growth expected for occupations in general. This is a field with a lot of responsibility, but it is matched by opportunity – a nice win-win for you.
Industry and Wages
Although most PAs work in physicians' offices and hospitals, they may also work in outpatient care centers and educational institutions. Some also work for the federal government, which ranks fourth among the top five PA employers. If you have your eye on the top salary, however, the Feds -- at $83,590 at year -- take a back seat to outpatient care, where you can expect to earn an annual salary of $92,450, according to the BLS. Hospitals also pay well at $91,620 annually, and the average for physician offices is $89,860. Only colleges, universities and professional schools pay less than the federal government, with an average annual salary of $83,140.
Outpatient care, although nothing to sneeze at, lags behind other health care industries, according to the BLS. PAs in specialty hospitals -- excluding psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals -- earned an average of $96,880 in 2011. Scientific research and development services came in slightly ahead of employment services -- staffing organizations that provide temporary personnel -- with average annual salaries of $93,930 and $93,370 respectively. PAs in office administrative positions, such as clinic administrators or office managers, earned $92,330 in 2011, according to the BLS.
If you really want the best wages as a PA, look to the East. The BLS notes three of the top five best-paying states for PAs are Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Jersey, with annual average salaries of $107,000, $100,470 and $99,870, respectively. If you prefer a more westerly climate, Nevada and Washington come in at $102,190 and $101,910. Specific localities may be quite remunerative. If you want city life, look to the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett Washington area, where PA salaries averaged $103,370 in 2011. Or you might consider Racine, Wisconsin, where PAs made $139,730, according to the BLS.
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