Note: This data brief was originally published on December 9th, 2015, including data through 2013. Soon after it was posted, 2014 data became available. Consequently, we have updated our report below. We have also included some additional detail on the data source used based on comments received after our initial publication.

Related to this data brief, we have invited Jennifer Coombs, Ph.D, PA-C, Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Physician Assistant Program at the University of Utah School of Medicine, to comment on this data. She also serves as a reviewer for the Journal of the Physician Assistant Association (JPAE) and currently serves on the Executive Editorial Board of the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (JAAPA). Her insightful commentary can be found here: http://healthworkforcestudies.com/news/1078-2/ 

Physician Assistants are health care providers who provide direct patient care and usually work under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. PAs typically attend three-year programs (usually leading to a master’s degree) following a bachelor’s degree and typically have some health care experience before becoming a PA.

The following figures rely on data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to track trends among PAs from 2003 to 2014. Unlike licensing-based data on PAs, the American Community Survey is roughly a 1% sample of the population of the United States and is currently used by academic researchers and by the Health Resources and Services Agency to report on Registered Nurses and other health-related occupations. The ACS relies on individuals self-reporting their occupation to identify PAs and other occupations, which can result in some misidentification (see Technical Appendix). However, the richness of individual demographic and other detail included in the ACS allows for detail and trend tracking not available in other data sources.

Figure 1. Total full-time equivalent physician assistants, 2003-2014

total fte pa new_2003_2014

Figure 1 shows substantial growth in the PA population between 2003 and 2014 – 63% (roughly 4.6% annual growth), over the 11-year period. In contrast, this is substantially faster than the growth of primary care physicians, which has been approximated at roughly 22% from 2000 to 2014.1

 

Figure 2. Employment of physician assistants by setting, 2003 – 2014

pa new by setting 2003_2014

The vast majority, and nearly the same numbers of PAs work in hospital and ambulatory/outpatient settings. Much smaller numbers of PAs are employed in other settings, including long-term care and home health care.

 

Figure 3.  Annual earnings of physician assistants, 2003-2014 

pa earnings new 2003_2014

Real (inflation-adjusted, in 2014 dollars) earnings among full-time PAs have risen considerably, from $75,000 in 2003 to more than $90,000 in 2014 (a period in which real wages for RNs, for example, were flat). PAs working in hospital settings tend to earn $5-10,000 more than those in ambulatory and outpatient settings.

 

Figure 4. Educational attainment by physician assistants, 2003 -2014

pa education new 2003_2014

Figure 4 shows educational attainment among PAs has increased markedly. In 2003, roughly one in 5 PAs had a Master’s level of greater education – that proportion exceeded 50% by 2014 and the proportion with an associate’s degree as their highest level of education dropped below 10%.

 

Figure 5. Race and gender of physician assistants

pa race and gender new 03_14

Figure 5 shows that most PAs are white (roughly 85% in 2014) and more than two-thirds are female, an increase from a decade ago when the percentage was closer to half.

 

Figure 6. Age composition of the physician assistant workforce 

pa age new 03_14

The PA workforce is growing younger.  Since 2003, the percentage of PAs under the age of 35 (on an FTE basis) has increased from 34% to 39% while the percentage of PAs aged 50 and above has held relatively steady. This trend reflects increasing new entry into the profession.

 

Technical Appendix

In this brief, Physician Assistants are self-identified via selection of the occupational category in the American Community Survey. All figures use survey weights provided by the Census and are further weighted by FTEs (a PA working part-time is only counted as ½).

A number of respondents are thought to choose this occupational category although they are likely to be medical assistants or other categories of assistants to physicians.2 Based on an understanding of the educational requirements of PAs and comparisons with membership surveys among licensed PAs undertaken by the American Academy of Physician Assistants3, we removed from the sample individuals with less education than an associate’s degree – individuals totaling roughly 4,000 FTEs in 2014.  Our final tally of 92,000 PAs in 2014 is similar to the total PA count of 93,000 reported in the 2013 AAPA survey, 93,000 reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2015, and the 94,400 reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014. Our average reported earnings ($93,300 in 2014) is similar to the median earnings reported by the BLS in 2014 ($95,820).

References

1.   Lin SX, Klink K, Wingrove P, et al. Shifting Sources of US Primary Care Physicians. Graham Center Policy One-Pagers, 2014;

2.   U.S. Department of Health and Human Services HRSA, Bureau of Health Professions, National Center for Health Workforce Analysis,. THE U.S. HEALTH WORKFORCE CHARTBOOK. Part I Clinicians. 2013

3.   American Association of Physician Assistants. AAPA Annual Survey Report. 2013