The fact that many states still require physician assistants to work under the direct supervision of a licensed physician makes it easy to assume that there is very little variety in the profession. But this is not the case. Not all physician assistants work in primary care offices. There is plenty of variety across numerous environments.
A search for physician assistant jobs reveals a plethora of opportunities. For the brand-new PA, so much variety represents an opportunity to try lots of new things. But even physician assistants with many years under their belts can benefit from choices. Variety offers a way to prevent boredom and career complacency.
Employment by the Numbers
Bureau Of Labor and Statistics (BLS) data from 2020 shows the distribution of PAs throughout the United States. The data shows that just over half (53%) of all physician assistant jobs are found in family practice and general medicine. In other words, a slight majority of PAs are employed by primary care and family medicine offices.
As for the remaining 47%, these are scattered among:
- hospitals – 26%
- outpatient clinics – 8%
- educational settings – 5%
- government settings – 2%
- other – 6%.
Hospitals being the second largest employer group among PAs suggests a couple of things. First, it could be that the majority of hospital-employed PAs provide primary care. But it could also mean they are providing services that complement hospitalists and medical residents. BLS data does not make it clear.
As for the other work environments, they speak for themselves. PAs provide valuable services in outpatient clinics and educational settings. They work for government agencies and the U.S. military.
Specialization Is Possible
It is a mistake to think that all physician assistants provide primary care. Primary care is but one specialty in a vast field of healthcare opportunities. A PA’s daily tasks depends on their work environment. In a hospital setting, a PA may find themself making rounds one day and helping admit new patients the next. They might find themself reviewing patient cases to determine what tests to order.
In an educational setting, a PA might fulfill the role of primary healthcare practitioner for students and faculty. It could be in a college or university, in a public school, or even a private school setting. The physician assistant handles immediate medical needs to keep students and faculty healthy and safe in the school setting.
Primary Care at Retail
A newly emerging work model for PAs in less restricted states is providing direct primary care in a retail setting. The retail healthcare model was just getting started in the years prior to the COVID pandemic. But in the two years since COVID made it to our shores, retail healthcare has exploded.
The retail model is a fantastic choice for physician assistants looking to practice outside of the traditional office or hospital setting. Retail clinics are located in pharmacies, department stores, and even grocery stores. They generally operate on a walk-in model, giving PAs even more flexibility.
Complementing retail clinics are new remote healthcare centers. These feature digital kiosks that connect patients with remotely located doctors. Physician assistants often act as intermediaries, so to speak, handling primary care so that doctors are free to work with patients needing more specialized attention.
It is clear that physician assistant jobs do not qualify as one-size-fits-all. There is plenty of variety in the career. So much so that a PA could start in one area and switch multiple times over the course of many decades of working in the industry. That is not a bad way to go.