It's inevitable that an athlete will become injured at some point. Maybe you are a former teen athlete and can empathize with getting sidelined by a torn ligament or sprained ankle. Such empathy may steer you to a career in sports medicine, where you can become a doctor or, with less schooling, a physician assistant.
About Physician Assistants
Although their scope of practice may differ slightly from one state to the next, PAs generally perform similar physician functions. They make medical diagnoses and prescribe medications. Unlike physicians, a PA must work under a supervising physician in all states. In the field of sports medicine, a PA might examine a teen athlete's injured knee and order an X-ray. Depending on the results, the PA might recommend a simple course of rest and ice packs, apply a knee brace or make a referral to an orthopedic surgeon. The PA might also order physical therapy or suggest a course of exercises to strengthen the knee and prevent injuries.
The focus of sports medicine is to improve athletic performance, help people recover from injuries and prevent injuries from occurring. Sports medicine professionals can be physicians, nurses, physical therapists or fitness trainers, as well as PAs. A patient may be a professional athlete; an individual with a disability who wants to increase his mobility; or a “regular Joe” who exercises several times a week. Medical professionals in the sports medicine field may also specialize in orthopedics, because the musculoskeletal system is both critically important to sports performance and a common source of sports injuries.
You’ll need some specialized schooling to become a PA, although not as much as if you went for a medical degree. PAs generally have a bachelor’s degree, and many PA programs require that the applicant also have some experience in a health care field. A PA must complete an additional two years of education to earn a master’s degree, which is the minimum requirement to practice as a PA. Look for a school that offers clinical rotations in orthopedics or sports medicine. Typical courses include pathology, human anatomy, physiology, clinical medicine, physical diagnosis and medical ethics, as well as supervised clinical training in family medicine, pediatrics or emergency medicine. As of 2011, 165 accredited PA programs had been approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Licensing and Certification
PAs must be licensed in all states. The licensing exam is offered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants and is called the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination. A PA who passes the licensing exam is entitled to use the credential “Physician Assistant-Certified.” PAs must recertify every six years, either by taking a recertification exam or by completing a learning experience and take-home exam program. PAs who graduate from an accredited program and are certified can also go on for specialty training at the post-graduate level. Although the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants offers several specialty certifications, sports medicine is not one of them. Certification is available, however, from the American College of Sports Medicine, as a physical activity in public health specialist.
Finding a Job
Because all PAs must be supervised by a physician, look for employment with a physician who has similar interests. Sports medicine physicians may be trained in a number of medical specialties, such as family practice, physical medicine and rehabilitation, or orthopedics. Most sports medicine specialists provide non-surgical management, but orthopedic surgeons also perform surgery for sports injuries. The BLS does not track physician assistants by specialty, but the average annual salary for a physician assistant in 2012 was $92,460. The job outlook is excellent, as the BLS notes employment opportunities for PAs are expected to grow 30 percent between 2010 and 2020, more than twice the average for all occupations.
2016 Salary Information for Physician Assistants
Physician assistants earned a median annual salary of $101,480 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, physician assistants earned a 25th percentile salary of $86,130, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $121,420, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 106,200 people were employed in the U.S. as physician assistants.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Physician Assistants
- Explore Health Careers: Sports Medicine Overview
- National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants: Specialty Certificates of Added Qualifications (CAQs)
- American College of Sports Medicine: ACSM/NPAS Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2012 29-1071 Physician Assistants
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Physician Assistants
- Career Trend: Physician Assistants
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.