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Physician Assistant Market Poised to Fill Patient Care Access Gaps

The job market for physician assistants is booming as more organizations hire them to fill patient care access gaps.

physician assistant patient care access gap

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- The job market for certified physician assistants (PAs) remains strong as healthcare organizations use non-physician clinicians to support patient care access amidst the provider shortage issue, according to new data from the National Commission of Certified Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

In a survey of nearly 9,000 PAs who were first certified in 2017, NCCPA found that now is a good time to become a physician assistant. Over three-quarters of PAs (77 percent) fielded multiple job offers in their first year of practice. On average, PAs made $95,000 as a starting salary.

The best salaries and job opportunities are in radiation oncology, occupational medicine, gynecology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry, the report found.

As more healthcare organizations hire PAs and other non-physician clinicians to fill the physician shortage, aspiring medical professionals are taking notice. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the PA job market will grow by 37 percent by 2026, NCCPA said.

Therefore, more people are seeking educational opportunities to become a PA. In the next three years, the number of PA programs should grow 24 percent from 236 to 293 programs, NCCPA reported.

READ MORE: NPs, PAs Could Reduce Primary Care Physician Shortage Nearly 70%

Once certified, PAs are practicing in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia. Most PAs practice in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, North Carolina, and Texas.

This is in stark contrast with the areas where PAs are most needed. Medical professionals across the country have acknowledged the promise PAs hold in closing the physician shortage, an issue that is especially salient in rural areas and underserved urban regions.

However, very few PAs are practicing in these areas. States such as Alaska, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont, and West Virginia all have low proportions of PAs.

When PAs do practice in a rural area, it is largely because of attractive incentive programs. Fifty-five percent of PAs working in a health professional shortage area (HPSA) made that choice because of loan forgiveness programs.

This suggests that incentive programs designed to attract PAs and other health professionals to HPSAs could be effective in the future.

READ MORE: Understanding Physician Shortage Issues, Patient Care Access

A considerable portion (40 percent) of PAs also said they practice in HPSAs because it was their personal preference. Most PAs said they decided to practice where they grew up, even if they grew up in less populated areas. One-third of respondents working in a rural area said they grew up there. One-fifth of those working in underserved urban regions said the same.

PAs working in HPSAs are not the only ones receiving practice incentives, the report added. Seventy percent of respondents said they receive some sort of practice incentive such as reimbursement for continuing medical education (CME), certification maintenance, signing bonus, relocation bonus, or loan repayment.

These benefits are typical of PAs, said NCCPA president and CEO Dawn Morton-Rias.

“Certified PAs enjoy flexibility, a work/life balance, and an above average starting salary so it is attractive as a profession,” Morton-Rias said in a statement.

“Over the past 50 years, PAs have earned a reputation for providing high-quality care, which has created an increasing demand for their services. NCCPA continues to certify PAs through rigorous programs that are among the toughest in health care. Thus, employers and patients have come to rely on certified PAs.”

READ MORE: Physician Shortage Drives Wait Times, Harms Patient Care Access

PAs have come into the spotlight in recent years as the healthcare industry grapples with a looming physician shortage. Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) found that by 2030, the nation could face a shortage of up to 120,000 primary care providers. PAs show some promise for filling that care gap as the industry also works to hire more physicians.

Understanding the job market landscape for physician assistants will be essential, Morton-Rias said, because it will allow industry experts to better direct hiring decisions for PAs.

“The health care industry faces so many challenges including physician shortages, skyrocketing demand for services, dire shortages in underserved areas, and the mandate to deliver value-based care,” Morton-Rias added in an introduction to the report. “However, the details are important to analyze. Are there enough new PAs in the pipeline to fill current and forecasted openings? What is the cost of hiring? What specialties, geographies and clinical setting are applicants seeking?”

Separate research has shown that PAs, alongside other non-physician clinicians such as nurse practitioners, will be instrumental in filling patient care access gaps. A 2018 report from United Health Group found that PAs and NPs could reduce the physician shortage by up to 70 percent, so long as PAs and NPs are granted full practice authority – meaning they practice at the top of their training level.

“These advanced practice clinicians practice independently or as part of multidisciplinary care teams that help primary care practices care for more patients,” United Health Group wrote. “A meaningful, timely opportunity to increase primary care capacity is to allow NPs to practice to the full extent of their education and training.”

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