Since President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010, the nation’s focus on changes to our healthcare system has never been stronger. Not only are Americans beginning to understand how many of the changes brought about by the law will affect them, but the healthcare industry itself is finding new and more efficient ways to adapt to the health needs of our incredibly diverse population. As a result, now is an excellent time to begin exploring a possible career in the healthcare industry, and launching a career as a physician’s assistant may be the best place to start.
Part I. The Medical Assistance Industry
One of the major misconceptions about assistive personnel in the healthcare field is that such roles pale in comparison to their physician counterparts when it comes to on-the-job difficulty and responsibility. In fact, physician’s assistants, nurses, and other medical professionals often “hold down the fort” and are directly responsible for handling some of the most important aspects of a patient’s care. Most, if not all, of these assistive roles require at least a master’s degree in a specialized field.
Forbes recently posted an article that details the best and worst master’s degrees for jobs in this day and age. Not surprisingly, several degrees in science and technology were on the list, but the number one spot was awarded to ‘Physician’s Assistant Studies’. While this is great news for people who are considering a career as a physician’s assistant, it is by no means the only career path you should consider. Below is a brief overview of the physician’s assistant role, as well as a few other related roles you can consider within the healthcare industry.
An Overview of the PA Role and Other Related Careers
- Physician’s Assistant: These days, physicians have their work cut out for them when trying to effectively manage every aspect of their patients’ care. Physician’s assistants, known as PAs, take on several of a doctor’s normal tasks so as to lighten their workload throughout the day. Of these tasks, PAs are typically relied upon to perform preliminary examinations of patients, such as x-rays and blood work, as well as to act as an initial point of contact for a patient’s questions and concerns.
- Registered Nurse (RN): Throughout history, nurses have acted as a physician’s right hand when performing complex procedures and monitoring a patient’s overall care. In addition to having a mastery of many tasks performed by a physician’s assistant, a registered nurse is also responsible for operating and understanding medical equipment, prescribing medications and treatment, and counseling patients on how to properly treat their illness or injury once they leave the hospital.
- Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) / Paramedic: The period of time between the onset of a patient’s health emergency and his or her arrival at the hospital can mean the difference between life and death without proper care during transport. EMTs and paramedics are, for all intents and purposes, the heroes who ensure that a patient’s health crisis is adequately stabilized while being transported to a hospital for urgent care. The difference between this role and the two roles discussed above is that EMTs and paramedics typically do not have a physician’s working with them, and often need to make life or death medical decisions based on their own experience and knowledge out in the field.
- Occupational Therapist: When all of the above roles complete the work of providing primary care for a patient’s health emergency, aftercare personnel (such as occupational therapists) take over to help patients ease back into their normal activities. The OT assists your primary physician, since keeping up with a patient’s aftercare is a full-time job in its own right. Because of the amount of knowledge required for an occupational therapist to manage a patient’s comprehensive and ongoing therapy following a major health event, OTs are required to have a master’s degree in the field before obtaining a license to practice.
- Medical Transcriptionist: As mentioned briefly above, the sheer number of things a physician must accomplish over the course of a single day requires almost superhuman powers without the right support staff. Medical transcriptionists help physicians free up precious time by transcribing their words into written reports and documents. Not only do medical transcriptionists help to maintain comprehensive patient records, but their work also protects physicians from a potential lawsuit should something go wrong over the course of a patient’s care. Here is a great link that provides some fascinating information on this relatively new (but very important) role in the healthcare industry.
Salary and Career Outlook
As with many professional careers within the healthcare industry, salaries tend to be quite competitive, and in many cases, much higher than what is typically offered by other industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median wage for the physician’s assistant role as of 2010 was set at $89,410 per year, or $41.54 per hour. Because so much depends on a physician’s assistant’s ability to keep up with a doctor’s daily work regimen, this rather generous salary will be well-earned.
Registered nurses and occupational therapists also tend to earn a sizable salary for the work they do. According to the BLS, registered nurses take home a median salary of $64,690 per year, while occupational therapists can expect to earn upwards of $72,320 per year.
Today, the outlook for most careers in the healthcare industry is very bright indeed. As our attention becomes increasingly focused on finding ways to improve and expand the industry so that all Americans have proper and adequate access to medical care, all of the roles discussed above will be in demand for quite some time to come.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics rate many of the healthcare industry roles we’ve discussed thus far as having a job growth outlook of faster, or much faster than average over the course of this decade. Physician’ss assistants, occupational therapists and paramedics currently lead the way with a job growth outlook of over 30% from 2010 to 2020.
Part II: Top U.S. Physician’s Assistant Programs
U.S. News and World Report published an article in 2010 that goes into great detail as to why physician’s assistant school might be the best bet for someone in the pursuit of a fulfilling career in the healthcare industry. Below are some of the country’s top programs for learning how to become a physician’s assistant — and a few of them can even be completed entirely online.
Duke University (Durham, NC)
- Accreditation: In addition to being a part of a university that is accredited by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SASC), the Physician’s Assistant program at Duke University is also accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician’s Assistant (ARC-PA).
- Specialized Degrees: Upon completion of the school’s rigorous two-year program, successful candidates will receive a Master of Health Sciences degree with accompanying credentials for carrying out the duties of a physician’s assistant following graduation
- Industry Perception: Known as “the birthplace of the physician’s assistant profession,” the PA program at the Duke University School of Medicine has truly shown itself to be second-to-none when it comes to obtaining a world-class education in the field. Graduates from Duke’s Physician’s Assistant program are considered to be at the top of their field, and are very much in demand by doctors throughout the country.
- Cost: Truth be told, medical school can get a bit costly, and the School of Medicine at Duke University is no exception. On top of tuition that will cost more than $30,000 per year, the yearly expense is nearly doubled by lab fees, book costs, uniforms, room and board, etc. In the end, attendees of Duke’s PA program should expect to pay at least $120,000 for education over the course of two years.
- Financial Aid: In addition to applying for various public and private loans, grants and scholarships, the State of North Carolina offers a competitive loan program for students in the healthcare field.
University of Iowa (Iowa City, IA)
- Accreditation: The University of Iowa is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools Higher Learning Commission (NCA-HLC) and its Physician’s Assistant program at the Carver College of Medicine is separately accredited by the ARC-PA.
- Specialized Degrees: In addition to being one of the top universities in the country to earn a master’s degree in Physician’s Assistant Studies, the degree program itself is highly innovative. PA students are expected to complete at least 60% of their didactic (non-clinical) curriculum along with sophomore medical students at the university, which ensures each candidate gets excellent experience working together with their physician’s counterparts well before the job search begins.
- Industry Perception: Like Duke University, the University of Iowa often ranks on par as one of the very best institutions to learn how to become a physician’s assistant. The Department of Physician’s Assistant Studies at the University of Iowa is proud to proclaim that 100% of its graduates go on to find job opportunities after graduation.
- Cost: Because the University of Iowa is a public, state-funded academic institution, tuition can vary depending on whether or not you are a resident of Iowa. For resident students, the cost of tuition could cost you $8,061, while nonr-esidents should expect to pay at least triple that amount for tuition.
- Financial Aid: The University of Iowa offers several financial aid packages in the form of private and government loans and grants, as well as a pool of generous health-related scholarships that are offered by the school itself, as well as by several other sources.
A.T. Still University of Health Science (Mesa, AZ and Online)
- Accreditation: While the Physician’s Assistant program at A.T. Still University’s Arizona School of Health Sciences is currently accredited by the ARC-PA, this accreditation is under probationary review until 2014.
- Specialized Degrees: The Physician’s Assistant program at A.T. Still offers both a certificate and Master of Sciences degree that can be completed entirely online (the only on-campus requirement would be graduation attendance). Moreover, the university also offers a specialized degree focus for Native American physician’s assistants.
- Industry Perception: Despite not possessing the clout and and historical importance of the two universities discussed above, the Physician’s Assistant program at ATSU’s Arizona School of Health Sciences is currently highly ranked as one of the best schools in the field. Moreover, the school’s excellent distance learning option and innovative course offerings make it an exceptional choice for many potential physician’s assistants.
- Cost: The cost to attend the Physician’s Assistant program at ATSU is divided into two components: a didactic component, which is currently set at $33,935 (plus a $1,241 education supply fee), and a clinical component, which is $28,885 (plus a $1,050 education supply fee). These costs are for the entire program, and not just for one academic year.
- Financial Aid: The Arizona School of Health Sciences at ATSU accepts financial aid from a variety of sources, including public and private loans, grants and scholarships.
University of Nebraska Medical Center (Omaha NE and Online)
- Accreditation: The Physician’s Assistant Studies program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is accredited by the ARC-PA, as well as the NCA-HLC through the main university.
- Specialized Degrees: The University of Nebraska Medical Center offers both an in-house and distance learning degree program in Physician’s Assistant Studies. In addition to its own master’s program in Physician’s Assistant Studies, which can be taken entirely on campus. Moreover, the on-campus students can opt to earn a dual master’s degree in Physician’s Assistant Studies and Public Health. A master’s degree program in Physician’s Assistant Studies can also be completed online for practicing physician’s assistants with a bachelor’s degree.
- Industry Perception: The University of Nebraska Medical Center is considered to be one of the United States’ premier medical schools, and is ranked consistently high by college ranking outlets. As of 2011, the university’s Physician’s Assistant Studies program was ranked #16 in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.
- Cost: Like the University of Iowa, tuition at the University of Nebraska Medical Center can vary dramatically depending on whether or not you are a resident of the State of Nebraska. The total projected cost of tuition for the first year students of the medical center is set at $24,849.50, while non-residents are responsible for paying over twice that amount. The total cost of tuition decreases markedly for each year the student is enrolled in the program.
- Financial Aid: In addition to the several government grants and loans made available to students who have successfully completed the FAFSA process, the University of Nebraska Medical Center also offers aid in the form of scholarships, veterans benefits and work study programs.
Part III: Launching a Career as a Physician’s Assistant
Given the huge demand these days for physician’s assistants at hospitals and medical centers throughout the country, graduates who earn a degree in physician’s assistant studies shouldn’t have too much of a problem launching a promising career right out of college. Below are some helpful tips and advice to help you begin your career preparation as a physician’s assistant.
Leverage your experience – Use your resume and cover letter to concisely reflect your experience, skills, and accomplishments you bring to the table. The Health eCareers Network provides two outstanding articles on errors to avoid when creating your cover letter and résumé when establishing a career as a physician’s assistant. The American Academy of Physician’s Assistants also offers an excellent career guide that provides some detail on how to establish and maintain a professional development portfolio, as well as an online tool to help you do so.
Build and deserve a great reputation – As in any medical profession, your ability to keep patient comfort, safety and care your number one priority will define your success as a physician’s assistant. The physicians and nurses you work with everyday will notice and respect a consistent and careful work ethic. Earning this reputation takes time, but it is invaluable.
Empower Physicians to Do More
Despite being a relatively new field within the healthcare industry, the physician’s assistant has become one of the industry’s most critical roles. By providing doctors and nurses with much needed assistive support, physician’s assistants are creating a much healthier and efficient environment for healthcare professionals and practitioners to focus on work that truly matters—for themselves and for their patients. If joining the healthcare industry is something you have always considered, then becoming a physician’s assistant may very well be the career you’ve been looking for.