What Does an Army Physician Assistant Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image shows two women in military garb, one on an examining table and the other with a clipboard examining her, they are in a doctor's office. text reads:

Image by Derek Abella © The Balance 2019

A U.S. Army physician assistant (PA) job isn't as subservient as it sounds. Though supervised by doctorate-trained physicians, PAs are trained at the graduate level and able to expand the reach of the healthcare team in assessing and treating patients. That level of skill and education earns military PAs a place in the commissioned ranks right alongside doctors, nurses, and other graduate-level professionals.

In addition to performing within the scope of their professional practice, PAs in the U.S. Army provide leadership within the military medical community: According to GoArmy.com, they may even serve as "commander[s] of companies, battalions, brigades and medical treatment facilities."

Army Physician Assistant Duties & Responsibilities

This position generally requires the ability to do the following work:

  • Examine patients and diagnosis their illness or injury
  • Take or review patients' medical histories
  • Assist physicians during surgery or other medical procedures
  • Administer and prescribe medicine and therapeutic procedures to patients
  • Provide routine physicals, treatments, and counseling to patients
  • Order and assess test results and recommend treatment

Army PAs work with physicians or as part of a patient-service team to maintain the health and well-being of military personnel and their families. They may assist physicians in the operating room, performing routine or emergency surgeries. Some PAs may provide emergency medical treatment in combat or remote areas.

PAs may also specialize in laboratory testing of tissue and blood samples; maintaining pharmacy supplies or patients’ records; assisting with dental procedures; operating diagnostic tools, such as x-ray and ultrasound machines; or other healthcare tasks.

Army Physician Assistant Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes this job under physician assistants. According to this category, PAs earn the following salary:

  • Median Annual Salary: $108,610 ($52.22/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $151,850 ($73.00/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $69,120 ($33.23/hour)

Payscale provides a salary for PAs in the U.S. Army as follows:

  • Median Annual Salary: $94,000 ($45.19/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $119,000 ($57.21/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $76,000 ($36.54/hour)

Source: Payscale.com, 2019

According to Defense Finance Accounting Services (DFAS), a division of the U.S. Department of Defense, PAs receive an additional $5,000 of incentive pay annually and can receive an additional retention bonus for years worked. For example, a PA who's worked for the U.S. Army for six years will receive a $35,000 retention bonus annually.

Education, Training, & Certification

To become a U.S. Army PA, you will need to have the following education, training, and certification, which varies according to your time spent in service:

  • Direct Commission Requirements: If you've already earned a graduate degree and license, you can apply for direct commission into the army's Medical Specialist Corps, an officer cadre that also includes occupational and physical therapists and dietitians. You must have U.S. citizenship, proficiency in written and spoken English, and the ability to pass medical standards for army officers. In addition, you must be between 21 and 46 years old and meet certain height and weight standards, as well as pass the Army Physical Fitness Test.
  • Education: If you have a master's degree, you will still have to attend a modified version of Officer Candidate School to ensure you're well acquainted with the lifestyle and culture of army personnel. Unlike other officers, though, PAs and other Medical Specialist Corps candidates attend about 10 weeks of training called the Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC), at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. If you're joining the reserves, your stay will be a significantly shorter two weeks. As illustrated by BOLC's course overview, new PAs acclimate to the U.S. Army with standard topics such as drill and ceremony—how to walk, customs and courtesies— when and who to salute, and basic weaponry training with a rifle and pistol. Material specifically tailored to medical officers includes casualty evacuation, army medical doctrine, and a final few weeks featuring specific topics for each category of the allied health professions.
  • Health Professions Scholarship Program: If hold a bachelor's degree and plan to earn your master's degree and PA license, you may also qualify for the Health Professions Scholarship Program in exchange for your service in the army after graduation.
    • Program Requirements: In addition to the usual requirements for obtaining a commission in the army, scholarship applicants must already have an acceptance letter to a full-time graduate program. Unlike direct commission PAs, scholarship recipients are required to attend BOLC for only six weeks, during a break in school. Afterward, newly-graduated PAs are commissioned and must pay back the scholarship with a year in the army for every year of their graduate education.
      According to GoArmy.com's summary of the scholarship program, tuition, books, and equipment are paid for, and cost of living is defrayed with over $2,000 a month. This will assist you in concentrating on your studies rather than working to earn the extra income.
  • Interservice Physician Assistant Program (IPAP): Professional soldiers interested in advancing to a commission as a PA, will need to enroll in IPAP. Similar to the civilian scholarship, it allows enlisted men and women to earn a graduate degree and a living without interrupting their time in the service. IPAP provides for a natural career progression for soldiers already in the health and medicine field similar to a medic, but the army doesn't require applicants to hold any particular military occupational specialty (MOS) to qualify.
    • Program Requirements: General requirements such as U.S. citizenship and English-language proficiency remain the same. The major advantage over the civilian scholarship is that soldiers applying to IPAP don't necessarily need a four-year degree, as only 60 college credits are required. According to Army Regulation 601-20, 30 credits must be taken in residence for courses in English, humanities or social sciences, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, algebra, and psychology. Another 30 credits can be fulfilled by other means, such as test credits or equivalent military experience.
      Army lab technicians can move toward fulfilling the residence-only requirement with chemistry credits, while special forces medics and licensed practical nurses can receive three credits for human anatomy. Although IPAP is a graduate degree program, soldiers don't need take the Graduate Record Examinations (GREs). However, they will need to have taken the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), and have a score of at least 1000 that is no more than five years old.

    Army Physician Assistant Skills & Competencies

    To be a physician assistant in the army, you will need the following skills:

    • Written and verbal communication skills: The ability to explain complex medical issues that patients can understand, as well as communicate with physicians, medical staff, and army personnel
    • Self-discipline: The ability to adhere to strict rules and regulations as a member of the military
    • Physical and mental stamina: The ability to properly treat patients affected mentally and physically by war, which may also involve traveling to combat zones or remote areas carrying medical equipment and possibly the patients
    • Problem-solving skills: The ability to evaluate patients’ symptoms and administer the proper treatments
    • Emotional stability: The ability to remain calm in stressful situations that may involve wounded solders or disturbing scenes
    • Detail-oriented: The ability to focus when treating patients
    • Patience and compassion: The ability to treat patients who are in pain or distress with kindness and understanding

    Job Outlook

    According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 37% through 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. PAs are expected to continue to have a growing role in providing healthcare services because they can be trained more quickly than physicians. Under its military careers category, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that opportunities should continue to be favorable for qualified individuals in all branches of the armed forces.

    Work Environment

    PAs work at army bases, hospitals, or where ever they are needed. They spend much of their time on their feet, making rounds and evaluating patients.They work in operating rooms often standing for extended periods.

    Work Schedule

    U.S. Army PAs typically work full time. Hours commonly include overtime, treating emergencies and assisting in lengthy surgeries and other medical procedures. PAs may also work nights, weekends, and holidays. They may be on-call and must deal with emergencies with little notice.

    Comparing Similar Jobs

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