They’re highly trained and regulated like physicians, but they’re not paid like physicians. That combination of factors is creating high demand for physician assistants.
“What we’re seeing is hospital systems, health care delivery systems increasing the number of PAs that they’re hiring and utilizing because of the high quality of care that we provide and, quite frankly, the cost-effectiveness of PA services,” says Dawn Morton-Rias, president and CEO of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.
The role of the PA is expanding in part because of the shared DNA between PAs and physicians. A PA’s two and a half years of training generally uses the same model that medical schools use, and they are overseen at the state level by the same medical boards that oversee physicians, she says. “We look very much like physicians in terms of clinical practice,” Morton-Rias says.
Yet, the median annual pay for a physician assistant in 2013 was $93,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with the median pay to family and general practitioners of $177,000.
Couple that with NCCPA data showing that physician assistants skew to the younger side — it estimates that 67 percent of PAs are younger than 50 — and the use of PAs might ease the impact as baby boomer physicians retire in the coming years and newly insured patients increase demand.
Physician assistants can be put to work in many clinical settings. Baylor Scott & White Health in Texas tries to have a PA or advanced practice nurse working in every specialty in which physicians are working, employing about 375 of them in the system’s central region based in Temple, says Laurie Benton, R.N., a physician assistant hospitalist who is systems director for advanced practice professionals.
PAs are a large presence in Baylor Scott & White Health's central Texas region. At Scott & White Memorial Hospital, roughly a third of its 68 hospitalists are physician assistants. “Everybody here works as a team,” says Alejandro Arroliga, M.D., chairman and professor in the department of medicine at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.
Physician assistants also are the primary clinical responders for a sepsis hotline for floor staff, a relatively new program. “Every day we discover areas where we can help the patient,” Arroliga says.