Physician assistants (PAs) reported high job satisfaction in 2020, despite much of the year being marked by the pandemic, and the field continues to grow. That’s according to the annual Statistical Profile of Certified PAs, released this week by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
In the survey, which had a response rate of 85.9%, nearly three-quarters of PAs reported strong job satisfaction, with 72.9% saying they were “completely or mostly satisfied.”
“What’s reassuring is the high satisfaction level in spite of the pandemic,” said NCCPA President Dawn Morton-Rias, EdD, PA-C.
However, 26.6% reported feeling burnout, with 57.2% noting occasional burnout, and only 0.9% saying they are “completely burned out.”
The number of certified PAs grew to 148,560, a 28.6% increase over 2016 (the report compared 2020 findings with the 2016 report), giving the field 45 PAs per 100,000 people in the U.S. — an increase over 36 per 100,000 in 2016. And for the third straight year (2018-2020), more than 9,000 new PAs were certified.
More than two-thirds (69.7%) of all PAs reported that their primary employer was hiring more PAs — and 19.7% of these employers had positions open for at least 6 months.
“The profession first of all is growing tremendously,” Morton-Rias said. “It used to be, ‘What’s a PA and will you get a job?'” But no more.
While 5.8% of PAs noted that they plan to retire within the next 5 years, Morton-Rias said many are working well into their 60s and 70s.
Morton-Rias, who teaches at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City, attributed the field’s growth in part to the increase in PA educational programs. The number of programs has increased from 148 in 2010 to 267 in 2020, according to an NCCPA spokesperson. That number was up to 275 by March of this year — compared with 45 in 1990.
Nearly four of five PAs listed a master’s as their highest degree obtained (78.8%), an increase over 71% in 2016. Those reporting a bachelor’s as their top degree declined from 23% to 16.4%. The average PA educational program lasts just over 2 years (111 weeks).
Surgical subspecialties (18.7%) and family medicine/general practice (18.1%) were the two most popular practice areas for PAs. Among internal medicine subspecialties, cardiology (2.9%), gastroenterology (1.6%), and oncology (1.5%) were most popular. Orthopedic (10.9%), cardiothoracic vascular (3.4%), and neurosurgery (2.2%) led the way for surgical subspecialties.
About two-thirds of PAs change disciplines at some point in their career, Morton-Rias said.
Hospitals (41.5%) and office-based private practices (37.7%) were the most common PA settings, but those working in urgent care settings more than tripled over 2016 (from 1.7% to 5.1%).
PAs reported working 40.1 hours weekly on average and seeing 71 patients — down from 74 patients in 2016.
Nearly all PAs (94.8%) said they practice clinically. For those not practicing clinically, the leading reasons were family responsibilities (32.9%), “other” (26.2%), and retirement (16%). Those reporting “other” most often said they were looking for a position.
Median PA income was $115,000, up from $105,000 in 2016, while the mean salary increased from $104,131 to $115,470. The percentage earning more than $200,000 nearly doubled. Specialties with the highest mean income were cardiothoracic and vascular surgery, neurosurgery, emergency medicine, and orthopedic surgery.
Women continued to dominate the profession (69.7% vs 30.3% men), and PAs ages in their 30s (38.3%) represented the largest age group (median PA age is 38).
More recent college graduates and other young students are entering the field directly, Morton-Rias said, though it does still see a solid share of second-career professionals.
The field is mostly white (80.8%), which has not changed much over the last 5 years, Morton-Rias wrote in a letter introducing the report.
Just over one-fifth reported using telemedicine (20.7%), with 76% of these PAs saying they use telemedicine less than 10 hours weekly. Nearly all PAs (95.5.%) reported prescribing pharmacological agents for patients and one-third indicated they were their patient panels’ primary provider.