Physician assistants (PAs) enjoy one of the most versatile medical careers, allowing them to practice in every medical setting, and it takes a much shorter time to enter the field. Now is one of the best times to look for a physician assistant job, as the demand for these skilled medical professionals is skyrocketing, per many professional organizations. Whether you want to focus on family medicine or demonstrate your skills in the emergency department or operating room, you’ll find multiple opportunities that meet your needs. This guide provides an employment forecast for PAs in 2023, including why they’re in such high demand and the salary range of a physician assistant.
Overall Demand for PAs
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects the demand for PAs to increase by 28% between 2021 and 2031. This increase represents an additional 38,400 PA jobs across the United States. U.S. News & World Report also ranked physician assistant jobs No. 2 on its Best Health Care Jobs list and No. 4 on its Best Jobs of 2023 list, citing a high level of job security as one of the primary reasons for the high rankings.
Factors Driving Increased Demand
One significant reason linked to the increased demand for PAs is the ongoing shortage of trained physicians nationwide. On June 11, 2021, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projected a shortfall of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034. The underlying causes driving physician shortage include the following:
- Increased demand for healthcare: Born between 1955 and 1964, baby boomers are now between the ages of 59 and 68. As they age, they need more healthcare, increasing the demand for physicians across the board.
- Cost of medical school: In 2020, medical students graduated with an average of $207,000 in debt, according to the AAMC. The high cost of attendance discourages some students from even applying, leaving the nation with fewer medical school graduates than needed to address the current physician shortage.
- Training requirements: An aspiring physician must complete a residency training program after graduating from medical school. According to the American College of Surgeons, these programs typically last for 3 to 7 years, increasing the time it takes to become a full-fledged physician.
- Reduced salary during training: Medscape reports that residents had an average annual salary of just $64,000 in 2021. This salary isn’t much, considering resident physicians routinely work as much as 80 hours per week. If a resident earns $64,000 annually and works 80 hours per week for 50 weeks, their hourly wage is about $15.38, much less than the average registered nurse’s salary and the highest-paying allied health positions. Not everyone can afford to spend 3 to 7 years at this salary level, especially when they have student loans to repay.
- Limited residency openings: In the United States, students go through a matching process to determine where they’ll complete their residency training. Each specialty has a limited number of openings. Students who don’t match anywhere must enter the Supplemental Offer and Acceptance Program (SOAP). If they don’t match during the SOAP process, they may have to take a year off, making it more challenging to begin their career as a physician.
Rising Healthcare Costs
Research conducted by the American Medical Association indicated that healthcare spending in the United States exceeded $4 trillion in 2020, an increase of 9.7% over the previous year. Hospital care accounted for 30.8% of all spending, while physician services accounted for 14.4%.
Consumers, health insurance companies and government agencies are all looking for ways to reduce costs in the face of staggering inflation. One solution is utilizing PAs, hence the increased number of physician assistant jobs, to help fight rising healthcare costs.
According to a Healthcare Financial Management Association report, the cost of caring for a complex patient is $2,000 lower when advanced practice providers deliver the care instead of physicians. A systematic review of international studies also showed that PAs provide lower-cost care.
In 18 of the studies reviewed, researchers also discovered that the quality of care provided by PAs exceeded that of the care provided by physicians. This review appeared in a 2021 issue of PLOS ONE’s peer-reviewed journal.
It’s expensive to treat patients with multiple chronic health conditions, as they may see multiple providers, resulting in the duplication of exams, imaging studies and laboratory tests. PAs who act as care coordinators can prevent some of this duplication of services, reducing the overall cost of a patient’s care.
The Department of Health and Human Services defines an underserved population as a group of people who have experienced health disparities due to their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or another characteristic. Health disparities result in increased disease burden and poorer outcomes for people in these underserved areas, making it critical for hospitals, clinics, private practices and other healthcare facilities to hire compassionate professionals interested in eliminating these disparities.
The number of doctors practicing in rural and underserved communities has been declining for numerous years, leaving rural communities with fewer options. Underserved populations tend to need more medical care than members of the general population, which can be exacerbated by the lack of primary care providers near them. The extensive medical training PAs receive makes them uniquely qualified to fill this primary care role.
PAs can diagnose illnesses and injuries, develop and manage treatment plans and prescribe medications, often serving as a patient’s principal healthcare provider. The National Rural Health Association recognizes the significant resource PAs represent in helping solve the rural healthcare crisis, and many PAs are eager to step in to provide the care these communities need to thrive.
In-Demand PA Specialties
Based on job data collected by Vivian Health, cardiovascular/cardiothoracic surgery and emergency medicine are two of the most in-demand PA specialties.
In the United States, cardiovascular disease is responsible for nearly 700,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hospitals, medical practices and other healthcare facilities need cardiovascular/cardiothoracic surgery PAs to care for patients with coronary artery disease, atrial fibrillation, heart attack and other cardiovascular conditions.
In 2021, the American Academy of Physician Associates reported that emergency medicine was No. 3 on the list of most popular PA specialties. Over the past few years, the demand for emergency care has increased for several reasons. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency department waiting rooms frequently filled beyond capacity with people waiting to see a doctor for high fevers, cough, shortness of breath and other COVID symptoms.
Additionally, many people delayed seeking care for other health conditions during the pandemic out of fear of exposure to COVID while sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or having tests done at a hospital or outpatient center. For some of those people, delays in care led to a sudden worsening of symptoms, prompting the need for emergency treatment and increasing the demand for PAs trained in emergency medicine to help meet this influx of patients.
PA Employment Opportunities by State
The states with the highest populations tend to have the most opportunities for healthcare professionals, including PAs. Based on data from the BLS, the five states with the highest employment of physician assistants in May 2021 were:
- California: 14,600
- New York: 13,670
- Texas: 8,900
- Pennsylvania: 7,340
- Florida: 7,120
Cities with large populations typically have higher demands for healthcare services, so they tend to have the most jobs available to PAs. Look in large metropolitan areas if you’re considering a move and want plenty of job opportunities. These five metro areas had the largest PA employment in May 2021:
- New York-Newark-Jersey City, New York/New Jersey
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California
- Washington/Arlington/Alexandria, District of Columbia/Virginia
- Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Georgia
- Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware
Average PA Salary Data
Your physician assistant salary depends on many factors, such as how much experience you have, what specialty you choose and where you work. Looking at staff PA jobs available on Vivian on February 8, 2023, the average hourly salary for a physician assistant role was $86 per hour, but some positions paid up to $96 per hour.
In comparison, the BLS reported that the national median physician assistant salary was $121,530 per year, or $58.43 per hour, in May 2021. During that time, permanent PA positions in the following states offered some of the highest average wages:
- Alaska: $70.11 per hour
- Connecticut: $68.17 per hour
- California: $65.83 per hour
- New York: $63.37 per hour
While wages in some states are lower, these states often have a lower cost of living compared to states with higher wages. For example, the BLS listed an average hourly wage of $55.81 in Texas and $50.39 in Florida, but these states have a lower overall cost of living compared to California and New York, per Sperling’s Best Places.
Highest-Paying PA Specialties
On December 9, 2020, the American Academy of Physician Associates released a list of the top 10 highest-paying salaries in the PA profession. Although emergency medicine accounts for just 9.2% of PA employment, according to its findings, PAs in this specialty had the highest median annual salary at $124,100. However, PAs who complete the additional training required to work in the cardiovascular/cardiothoracic subspecialty have increased earning potential, with a median annual salary of $137,000.
Travel Physician Assistant Salary Data
According to Vivian Health’s salary data on February 7, 2023, travel physician assistant jobs paid an average salary of $3,915 per week based on jobs posted over the last seven days. PAs with experience in the cardiovascular/cardiothoracic surgery specialty averaged $4,409 per week. Regarding location, PAs in Pennsylvania had the highest average salary, especially if they were willing to accept assignments in Wilkes-Barre, a small city in the northeastern part of the state.
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