How to Become a Physician Assistant and the Salary to Expect

Nurse Practitioner giving an examination

There are many medical professionals who have a passion for treating patients and enjoy the rewards of working with people to help them find answers for their health concerns. Not everyone, however, has the desire to become a full fledged medical doctor. Medical school simply isn’t the right choice for everyone as it is expensive to pay for the full program, competition is high with many not being accepted into the programs and low graduation rates. The seven year program can be expensive and grueling. These are just a few of the reasons why so many choose instead to become a physicians assistant, also known as a PA. If this is a career that you’re interested in pursuing, there are some things that you need to be aware of before you begin. We’ve put together an overview of the requirements, education, and experience that is necessary to become a licensed PA in the United States. In addition, continue reading to learn about the current job market and average salary that you can expect to make as a PA.

Educational requirements to become a PA

Students who are starting out with no college experience or formal training will need to be prepared to enter a rigorous educational and training program. For the educational component, you will need to first earn a bachelor’s degree with a major that falls within the healthcare field or at a minimum, the science field, but healthcare is the best choice. Some schools require a minimum GPA so make sure to keep your grades up. After successful completion of the bachelor’s degree, the next step is to enroll in a master’s level Physician’s Assistant program specifically. Make certain that the graduate school you apply for is an ARC-PA accredited PA program so you don’t end up wasting your time and money on programs that do not satisfy the necessary requirements. Following these two steps will help you to satisfy the educational requirements which are necessary for you to become eligible to apply to take the PANCE licensing exam upon completion of all other requirements.

Prepare for clinical time

Almost all physician assistant degree programs also contain a regimen of clinical rotation hours. The average time that you will spend with hands on experience, working in a clinic or hospital will be roughly 2,000 hours. There are several types of medical settings that you could find yourself working in during the clinical phase of your program. These will be fulfilled under the supervision of a medical doctor or other certified health care professional. This clinical experience may take place in a variety of several fields including psychiatry, OB/Gyn, general surgery, family medicine, internal medicine or other areas. During your clinical rotations you will learn how to diagnose patient conditions, how to properly develop the best treatment plans for each condition, what is involved in certain medical service settings, the pace of work, scheduling time, prioritizing and so forth. The educational and hands on aspect help prepare you to take on the role of PA in a real life setting. You may end up assisting doctors in a variety of settings while you’re learning about the profession. Each physician who supervises PA students is different but each is there to help you learn the things that will help you to effectively work with patients in the place of a physician. It’s an awesome task with tremendous responsibility but in most cases, an attending physician will be nearby to guide you while you’re learning.

Important information about the PANCE licensing examination

You must first be found eligible to register to take your PANCE examination. The requirements as stated previously include proof of graduation from a Physician Assistant program which is accredited. It must be accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. It’s important to ensure that the program is fully accredited when you enter the school because if it is not, this could disqualify you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve served as a PA in other countries or completed your education outside of the United States, you must still possess a degree from an institution that meets this set in stone requirement as there are no substitutions allowed for licensing. It is also important to note that you only have six years to pass your PANCE examination and you can attempt the exam up to six times within this period. If for any reason you do not attempt the exam or fail to pass it, you will need to complete the entire program again to become eligible to register for the test. The rules governing eligibility are extremely rigid and there are no loopholes so it’s important to understand before you begin that it can be an extremely challenging program to complete and you will only be licensed after passing the PANCE exam as directed.

How to schedule your PANCE Exam

The PANCE Exam is a competency test so you should expect to be tested in all areas that will prove that you have the skills and knowledge to meet the established standards for PAs. Passing the exam will give you a PA-C certification. It may help you to know that in 2013, out of just over 7,500 candidates who took the exam, more than 94 percent passed it on the first attempt. You can apply for the authorization to take the the test as soon as 90 days prior to the completion of your master’s PA program. You will need to submit an application fee of $475. A letter will be sent after you complete the application process, further advising you about how to proceed to schedule your exam. The exams are taken at Pearson VUE testing centers which are authorized to administer the exams and you may schedule the test either by telephone or online.

How to prepare for the exam

One of the best ways to prepare for the PANCE Exam is to be diligent in your studies, keep all of your notes, and review them periodically. If there are any weak points in your knowledge, these are the best areas to focus on when you’re studying to take the test. Give yourself plenty of time and make sure that you’re getting plenty of rest, taking frequent breaks to relax so you absorb the information and digest it more completely and don’t try to cut corners. There are some very helpful services available that can help you to prepare for the exam, such as the Hippo Ed program, along with others. While you don’t need these to study, they have been found to be useful for providing audio education and a sampling of nearly two thousand questions that are similar to the ones that are likely to be asked on the examination. This can also help you to identify any weak areas that you might have so you can adequately prepare for all of the potential questions that could appear on the test. Bear in mind that the majority of the sample questions will not be the ones that are included on the test, but they will give you an idea of what to expect, and help you to learn how to answer them in a manner that is satisfactory for the purposes of the exam on the big day. You can also find free resources on the internet to help you to review the materials. Which exam preparation method you choose doesn’t matter just as long as you’re reviewing the right materials and improving the areas where you’re uncertain. This is a high stakes examination and you only have a limited time of a maximum of six years to pass it, or a maximum of six attempts, whichever comes first. In most cases, there is also a limit of 3 attempts per year. Another useful site that gives you information that is extremely helpful for reviewing for the PANCE test is found at MedGeeks. There are several others out there as well.

What to expect during test day

You must be prepared on test day to present your identification to verify your identity, and plan to arrive a half an hour early. A government issued picture ID is required along with one other piece of ID. You will be instructed on which documents are acceptable by the testing center. You must present valid documents to be allowed admission into the testing center to take the exam. A fingerprint or palm vein image may also be taken prior to the test. You will be directed to place all of your personal belongings into a locker at the testing center and you will not be allowed to bring anything into the testing area with you. You may access personal items during your 15 minute breaks which are allowed after completion of each of the test blocks.

The examinations are administered in several blocks that divide the questions. The total time allotment is five hours for the test and it is divided into five blocks of 60 questions for each block. There will be a total of 300 questions. You can answer them in any order that you would like and you are also allowed to go back through the questions and review the answers and make changes within the time that you are allowed for that block. Once the time has expired you will not be allowed to return to the block that was completed.

Continuing education

After passing your PANCE Exam, you will become a licensed physicians assistant or PA-C. You must maintain your license in order to legally practice through. Although you are certified by the NCCPA, the certification is only good for two years. You must also obtain an authorization from the state that you plan to practice in. You must also engage in at least one hundred hours of continuing education courses or approved activities within each two year period after you are licensed, and then pass an addition examination for re-certification every six years. In addition, you will need to check with the regulations imposed by the state that you practice in and follow their requirements to maintain your certification. The requirements may vary from one state to another so it’s vital to understand what your responsibilities are in advance to avoid loss of licensure.

What does a physician assistant do?

As a physician assistant, there is a specific set of skills that are helpful to have in addition to having passed all the requirements for licensing. Since you will be dealing with real people who have feelings and are likely to be in a moderate degree of distress, soft skills such as compassion are ideal, so long as you can remain objective enough to professionally administer medical assistance without your emotions getting in the way. Patients who are hurting, feeling ill or frightened need understanding and compassion as do the family members who may be there with them. You must have active listening skills to hear what your patient is trying to tell you and the ability to sometimes read between the lines when the patient is not able to articulate what they are feeling precisely. Verbal communication skills are also vital as you must have the ability to communicate effectively with patients as well as their caregivers in explaining any testing, procedures, medication or lifestyle changes that are recommended. Patient and caregiver education are an important part of the treatment process. Critical thinking and problem solving skills are a necessity and you must be able to think on your feet, or quickly in some more emergent situations, to assess the nature of the problem, the testing that is required and how to discover precisely what the medical issue with your patient is, for diagnosis and proper treatment.

Being a team player is also necessary as you will be a part of the larger medical team which includes a variety of healthcare professionals including nurses, surgeons, doctors, psychiatrists, physical therapists, rehabilitation staff and others in the medical field. It is your job to ask questions, review patient history, perform examinations, order testing, diagnose, treat and in some cases, prescribe medications. You will also be responsible for maintaining proper documentation for required medical records for each patient. You must also have the ability to work with difficult patients or those with mental impairments. You may work with a variety of patients of all genders and age groups, depending upon the type of medical setting that you work in. You must also maintain strict patient confidentiality in accordance with HIPPA requirements. Being a physician assistant can be a fast paced job that is physically as well as emotionally demanding, and it’s not the best choice for everyone, but if you feel that you possess the qualities recommended, the world needs more good PAs out there to help lessen the deficit in the number of medical professionals needed to address the health needs o an every growing population.

What is the salary range for a physician assistant?

The median salary range for a physician assistant in the United States of America is $93,710 annually. This includes estimates that include the base salary, bonus and other items frequently included in a total compensation package. On the low end, you could end up making as little as $75,000 per year or less or as much as $121,000 per year. While this is the average salary range, much depends upon the amount of experience that you have, your areas of expertise, the type of medical facility or clinic that you work in and even the state or region that you’re working in. There are many factors that will determine the amount of money that you will be offered to work as a physician assistant. It’s always recommended that you shop around and compare the offers that you’re made before you decide to accept a position.

Are there specializations within the PA field?

There are many different specializations that a physician assistant can opt to train for. Depending upon the specialization that you choose, it may also impact the amount of your salary as well. This falls into the realm of career choice. You can opt to remain a generalist or specialize in one or more of the available categories within the health care field. Here are some of the specializations along with their descriptions that you may want to consider.

Specializations and compensation

Physician assistants who specialize in geriatric care treat elderly patients. If you are passionate about the aging population and meeting their unique needs, then this may be an excellent option for you. Within the lower paying bracket is also adolescent medicine, gynecology, pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology. The salary range for these specializations is between $80,000 per year to $90,000. The higher paying concentrations are radiology, physical medicine, internal medicine, occupational medicine, urology, pain management, psychiatry, preventative medicine, hospital medicine, anesthesiology, hospice and palliative medicine and family medicine which bring in average salaries between $90,000 to $100,000 per year. The highest paid specializations for physician assistants are in the areas of general surgery, surgical sub-specialties, critical care, emergency medicine, dermatology and the highest being pathology with a range between $106,000 per year to $119,000 on average.

Physician Assistants have a wide range of choices

Becoming a PA is similar to becoming a doctor as the regimen for education, training and certification is rigorous, however, it takes less time spent in the classroom and in residencies and the cost is far less. Many health care professionals decide to become PAs instead of going the entire distance to become a medical doctor. Many of the duties and responsibilities are the same, and although it takes less time and money, it is still an astronomical commitment of time and resources, however, the rewards are substantial for those who are passionate about helping others through this pathway. With so many different available specializations, there are multiple choices open to physician assistants.

Final thoughts

If you’re considering the medical field as your chosen profession, becoming a physician assistant may be worth considering. It’s always advised to know precisely what you’re getting into before you begin such an extensive and rigorous program of study and training. When you know in advance, the educational, clinical and other prerequisites for getting into an accredited PA program, you can embark on your journey with full confidence. A bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s in an accredited PA program, passing the PANCE exam and complying with any other requirements of the state you practice in, and maintaining the necessary continuing education with recertification testing. Each state has their own set of requirements, but the basics remain the same. It takes time and money to get through the five steps which are required to become eligible to take the examination for licensing but there is financial assistance available for most who are truly interested in earning their license to practice. There is currently a shortage of caring, compassionate and competent health care professionals in the world today and with the ever expanding population, it’s an issue that is not likely to improve in the near future. This is good news if you want to secure a career in the medical field as a PA. If you have the soft skills and the ability to commit to the rigors of the program, you could make a significant difference in the health of the people you serve as a physician assistant. The pay is excellent and it provides you with an opportunity to pursue your passions in the specialization of your choice.

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