Jillian Badger-Reyes discovered her calling when she was volunteering for the Peace Corps on a military medical mission in rural Paraguay from 2004 to 2006.
She was already drawn to a healthcare career when she served as an interpreter for an American physician assistant in the South American country. In 2011, she became a PA herself.
The job, which requires a license and a master’s degree, is one of the hottest careers around.
“It’s not unusual for us to have 1,200 qualified applicants for 75 seats in the class,” said Dr. Hank Lemke, of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth.
In January, Forbes listed it as No. 1 among “The Ten Most Promising Jobs of 2015.” The demand at the Health Science Center has grown more than 400 percent in the last 10 years.
“I love doing what I do,” said Badger-Reyes, who treats youngsters at the UNT Health Science Center’s Patient Care Center in Fort Worth.
A physician assistant works with doctors and nurses examining patients, diagnosing injuries and illnesses, and prescribing medicine.
UNTHSC is one of eight institutions in Texas that train physician assistants. There are about 200 in the nation, said Lemke, chairman and founder of the university’s Physician Assistant Studies program.
The career has become competitive for several reasons: The nation is struggling with with a shortage of primary care or family doctors, the baby boomer population is aging, and more people are becoming insured under the Affordable Care Act, increasing the demand for healthcare services.
“The greatest demand for PAs, since the positions were created, has been in primary care,” Lemke said.
The physician assistant profession was introduced in the 1960s during a shortage of primary care doctors, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants. The first class graduated from Duke University on Oct. 6, 1967.
Lemke said that early on, the idea was to create access to medical care for populations who weren’t getting it, including people in rural communities.
“Since that time, PAs have expanded, and they are working with physicians in nearly all areas of medical practice, including specialties and subspecialty areas,” Lemke said. For example, PAs can work with an orthopedist, a surgeon who specializes in bones, or with a hand surgeon, a subspecialty, Lemke said.
PAs do not practice independently.
At UNTHSC, the program opened in 1997 with 12 students. Now there are 75 slots for each academic year, which begins in July, Lemke said.
Texas has eight programs in Texas — seven academic and one military. The UNT Health Sciences program in Fort Worth and a program in Dallas at UT Southwestern Medical Center are the only programs in the Metroplex.
The overall grade-point average for the July 2014 entering class was 3.6, Lemke said. He said the bar keeps getting pushed higher. At UNTHSC, applicants must have a bachelor’s degree and, beginning in the 2016-17 application cycle, they must have a minimum overall GPA of 3.0.
“It is very competitive,” Lemke said. “It is as hard to get into PA school as it is to get into a medical school.”
Answering a calling
Student interest is growing in part because of the relatively short period — two or three years — to get a master’s compared with about seven or eight years required to become a doctor.
They are highly likely to get a job once they graduate.
The growth in primary care doctor supply will not meet the demand in 2020, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study. The study predicts a shortage of about 20,400 doctors by then.
The PA career also has gotten some good public relations.
In 2012, Forbes listed physician assistant studies as the best master’s degree for jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the field to grow by 38 percent from 2012 to 2022. The median annual wage for PAs was $90,930 in May 2012.
But the biggest reason students tell Lemke they want to be PAs is because they want to help others.
“Many people have called it a calling — just like one might have a calling to be a nurse or a doctor,” he said.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675