After completing a bachelor's degree in chemistry and psychology, Jackie Osterhaus worked at Mayo Clinic as a medical laboratory technician.

Then she and her family moved to rural Wisconsin where she became a Jill-of-all-trades at the local clinic. "I directed the lab, learned to take X-rays, roomed patients and took vital signs - and I loved it," she says.

Osterhaus considered becoming a doctor. But she had two small children, and medical school wasn't feasible. A physician she knew suggested she become a physician assistant instead. "I had never heard of this career, but when I looked into it, I liked what I saw," says Osterhaus, now a physician assistant with the Paynesville Area Healthcare System.

What Is A Physician Assistant?

Osterhaus is one of over 1,000 physician assistants (PAs) in Minnesota. PAs are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician. PAs treat mild to moderate trauma, infections and common chronic illnesses such as diabetes.

Complicated cases often require consultation with or referral to a physician. "The PA-MD collaboration is integral to our practice," says Osterhaus. Most PAs work in "primarycare" - that is, family and internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology. But increasingly, they're found in specialties such as general surgery and orthopedics. Geriatrics is also emerging as an important specialty.

A Varied Practice

Monday through Thursday, Osterhaus works at the Eastside Clinic in Belgrade, where she sees patients ranging in age from newborns to elders. She also treats patients who walk in with fractures and lacerations, work-related injuries, and acute illnesses such as the flu. On Friday, Osterhaus is on call at the main clinic in Paynesville. And once a month, she visits residents in the Belgrade Nursing Home. "I love the variety of rural practice," she says. "I have a special passion for geriatric medicine. I like treating older patients with chronic illness."

Military Medicine

Osterhaus is also the battalion medical officer of the 367th Engineer Battalion of the Army Reserve, based in St. Cloud. In 2003, she was deployed to Iraq for a year's tour of duty. "PAs are the workhorses of military medicine," she says. "Working as a PA in a combat zone is a very different challenge. You really find out what you're made of."

Doctor's Work, Banker's Hours

There are more than 130 accredited PA training programs across the country.Some offer a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree is becoming the preferred credential. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), the typical applicant - like Osterhaus - has a bachelor's degree and several years of healthcare experience. Last year, Money magazine ranked physician assistant as the fifth top career choice in the United States. The magazine described the job as "doctor's work, banker's hours," noting that the average PA works 35 to 40 hours each week. The magazine also pointed to a projected 50 percent growth over the next 10 years, an estimated 4,000 job openings each year, and an average salary of $75,000.

Learn More

American Academy of Physician Assistants,

Minnesota Academy of Physician Assistants,


Nancy Giguere is a freelance writer from St. Paul who has written about healthcare since 1995.